A veterans advocacy group updates its guidance to take the Pact Act into account

The Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act — the PACT Act — became law a few months ago. It brought an expansion of services available to veterans and drew more veterans into eligibility. For a review, the Federal Drive with Tom Temin talked to a director at the National Veterans Legal Services Program, Richard Spataro.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin We should point out that as a Navy veteran you are also a consumer, to some degree, of Veterans Affairs Services. Fair to say?

Richard Spataro That’s fair to say. I probably haven’t taken advantage of them as much as I could. Luckily, I’m pretty healthy. But, my mission in life, essentially, is to help veterans get the benefits they deserve that help to have that experience as a veteran.

Tom Temin And the PACT Act is pretty comprehensive, this was major legislation in terms of the effect. What are you seeing? I guess, let’s start with what veterans need to know in order to take advantage if, in fact, they are eligible for PACT Act benefits?

Richard Spataro Yes, This the PACT act was a huge expansion of benefits primarily related to toxic exposures, as the name suggests. And it really impacts a lot of veterans who served in the Middle East, the Horn of Africa, over the past really 20 years, since Sept. 11. Those are the ones that you see a lot in the news. A lot of the press has been about the increase in veteran benefits for those veterans. For example, many of the veterans who served in that area of the world, they are now entitled presumptively to benefit for many respiratory conditions, types of cancers, that there’s been an increase in the incidence of those disabilities in those veterans presumably related to burn pits, other airborne hazards. And this law makes it a lot easier for those veterans to get disability benefits for those types of conditions. So that’s what we see a lot of. But it’s really one even beyond that, there is provisions in the PACT Act that help Vietnam veterans, for example. The law increases the number of areas where veterans are presumed to have been exposed to Agent Orange back in the 60’s and 70’s. And it even adds diseases that there’s been a lot of scientific evidence are linked to Agent Orange, for example, hypertension. Hypertension is the biggest one. So it will increase the number of Vietnam era veterans who now can get benefits for hypertension.

Tom Temin Well, just a detail question here, because there was Agent Orange legislation, or maybe it was just rulemaking, a few years back that gave that presumptive coverage to anyone who had been like, for example, on the planes that dropped Agent Orange and not merely the people on the ground where it might have been fuming around them. And then, later on there was the blue water for Navy veterans who had delivered the tanks or the canisters of Agent Orange. So did the PACT act go beyond those two developments?

Richard Spataro Yes, it actually did, Tom. There’s been a increase, a slow increase since the the mid 80’s, the early 90’s of the number of diseases that have been linked to Agent Orange exposure, as well as the areas where we’ve discovered that Agent Orange was used and other similar dioxin. So this act, when we’re talking about Agent Orange in particular, it increases the presumption to Thailand, for example, where there was fights for many years about whether veterans who served in Thailand were exposed. Now, anyone who served in Thailand, during the Vietnam era, will be presumed to been exposed. But it also expands to areas like Guam, American Samoa, Laos, Cambodia. There small areas in those locations at Johnston Atoll, where now the VA will presume that the veteran was exposed simply by setting foot in one of those locations.

Tom Temin And how would you rate Veterans Affairs efficacy so far in getting the word out to people that might not be using Veterans Affairs, say, and need to know this?

Richard Spataro I actually think it hasn’t been too bad. There are provisions in the PACT Act that actually require the VA to reach out to veterans who were previously denied some of the benefits that are now available to them. And there has been a lot of press about it. But, of course, it’s hard to reach everyone. So the more word we can get out, the better. We want as many veterans who are eligible and entitled to these benefits to get them, to what they deserve from their service.

Tom Temin We’re speaking with Navy Surface warfare veteran Rick Spataro. He’s now director of training and publications for the National Veterans Legal Services Program. And what do you hear from your members and your constituents about how fast the processing is going for those that apply for benefits under the PACT Act? Because we do know that the VA is starting to build up that backlog again, because of it.

Richard Spataro Absolutely, Tom. Well, we know that the law went into effect. It was signed into law on August 10, and the VA did need some time to ramp up to get their systems in place. And actually, in the beginning of this year, in January, they started processing these claims. It’s still very early in the process. So we’re still learning, but we know they are working on them and it is going to increase their workload. There are a lot more veterans who are applying for benefits. I have heard that the VA is seeing more applications because of the PACT Act. And we have some appeals in the system that were previously denied for benefits that are now presumptive in the PACT Act, for example. So it’s affecting the appeals process as well. And we are seeing some of those claims granted. So we think it’s a good thing, but it is going to take some time to get up to full speed for the VA.

Tom Temin And speaking of appeals, I think in the latest book of the manual that you put out every year for veterans on the different programs for VA, it’s been a few years since there was a modernization of the whole appeals process. I think it goes back to 2017. But now you’ve had a good base of experience, a good database of experience on how that has all worked. What are you telling people this year? What are the learnings from the modernized appeal process?

Richard Spataro Well, there’s been a lot, the law was passed in 2017 and it went into effect in February 2019. The VA still has a big backlog of cases from the old system. They’re whittling that down and I think they hope to have it, basically all the old cases done within the next year or two. But we are learning that the new system, there’s good and bad to it. There are definitely some benefits, veterans are seeing some good things, because in some cases they are getting their claims adjudicated quicker by taking advantage of some of the new appeal options. But in other cases,  there’s some difficulties that arise, because in order to increase that efficiency in the VA, for example, if you go to the Board of Veterans Appeals, now things like the Duty to Assist don’t apply at the board where they did in the past. So there’s pros and cons. Overall in the long run, I think it will help veterans, but there’s still some stumbling blocks.

Tom Temin All right. Well, it sounds like it’s kind of a never ending battle, I shouldn’t say battle, but never ending effort to align what people know with what VA is doing and then just keep VA prodded to do what they should, in terms of timing and and speed. Because I don’t think it’s fair to say VA does try to fulfill what it’s supposed to do under the law, but sometimes it’s just seems a little overwhelmed by the numbers.

Richard Spataro It’s a huge bureaucracy and there are millions of veterans. Our nation has 22 million veterans, many of them are disabled. And it’s hard to keep up with the number of veterans who are entitled to benefits and adjudicating those claims correctly. And you’re always having turnover within the VA. The laws are very complicated. There is 35 books of case law from the veterans court alone. We have thousands of pages of regulations, statutes from Congress. And it’s a very complicated area of law. And you have VA adjudicators who have relatively little experience while making the first decisions on lots of claims. So we see a lot of errors. They do try to get it right. But, it’s just mistakes are to be expected when you have that complicated an area of law, which is one of the reasons we put out our veterans benefits manual. To try to help advocates, in particular, understand what the laws are, ensure that they’re making the right arguments for veterans, making sure that veterans know what the laws are so they can advocate for themselves as well. But a lot of times, with a complicated system, it’s really key for the person representing the veteran to kind of lead that horse to water, as we like to say. By showing them, look, here’s what the law says, this is why I am entitled to benefits. I have the right evidence. Now, please grant my claim.

Tom Temin And I guess if they have caller ID at VA and they see Spataro calling, they put somebody experienced on to answer that phone. You’ve been at this a long time.

Richard Spataro They better. I have been.

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