PACT Act Paves Way for Expanded Veterans Care in Montana

Recently passed legislation is slated to increase healthcare and benefits options for Montana’s military veterans

By Denali Sagner
Veteran’s Clinic in Kalispell on August 12, 2022. Sarah Mosquera | Flathead Beacon

Earlier this month, Congress passed the Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act, or PACT Act, a sweeping piece of legislation that is slated to expand healthcare access for more than 3.5 million military veterans across the country. The act, which faced a tenuous road to passage in Congress, targets veterans who have suffered from illnesses related to toxic burn pit exposure. Though the road to implementing the act’s provisions may be long, many veterans and their supporters throughout Montana are optimistic about its implications for former service members.

The PACT Act, the largest healthcare and benefit expansion package in Veterans Affairs (VA) history, focuses primarily on lowering barriers to care related to toxic chemical exposure. Many veterans who completed tours abroad worked in close proximity to burn pits on military bases – or large fires in which troops incinerated computers, furniture, medical waste and other garbage. Toxic exposure from burn pits has been linked to various cancers and respiratory illnesses such as asthma, chronic bronchitis and emphysema. President Joe Biden, who signed the act into law, has told media outlets that he believes his late son Beau developed brain cancer due to toxic burn pit exposure while serving in Iraq as a member of the Delaware National Guard.

While former service members have long been able to apply for disability claims from the VA related to toxic exposure, these claims were often denied, as veterans could not adequately prove that their military service was the explicit cause of their ailments. The main provisions of the PACT Act add 23 presumptive conditions and a handful of presumptive-exposure locations to the toxin-related sicknesses list. This means that for many more veterans, it will be assumed that their health issues were caused by toxic exposure, rather than requiring veterans to prove the connection in order to receive benefits. In addition to more presumptive conditions, the legislation adds an array of locations and time periods to the presumption of exposure list, specifically sites across Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War and across the Middle East, from 1990 onward.

“This is a historic moment that has been months—even decades—in the making,” Montana Democratic Sen. Jon Tester, who is chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee and led the efforts to pass the bill, said. “For generations, toxic-exposed veterans have been left to fight our government to get the health care and benefits they have earned. I’m proud to say after today, this fight is over.”

The legislation is poised to have significant reach in Montana, a state with one of the highest percentages of veterans per capita in the country. As of 2020, Flathead County was home to 8,642 veterans, many of whom will now be eligible for healthcare and benefits under the expanded qualifications. 

“We are grateful for the opportunities the PACT Act provides to our Veterans,” Montana VA Health Care System Executive Director Dr. Judy Hayman said in a press release. “Our Veterans deserve the highest quality of care. This law helps us provide generations of Veterans—and their survivors—with the care and benefits they’ve earned and deserve.”

Michael Stone, vice president of the Veterans Coalition of Northwest Montana, a veterans’ support organization focused on suicide prevention, said that many of the veterans he sees in his work have been impacted by illnesses related to toxic pit exposure. While he is looking forward to the expanded benefits the PACT Act will bring, he said its implementation may take a long time.

“In the long run, it’s going to be beneficial to the veterans in the valley here, but it’ll take a little bit to get the paperwork up to speed,” he said. Ultimately, though, “this is good news.”

In addition to veterans, surviving family members of veterans who died due to conditions covered by the PACT Act may also be eligible for benefits. Veterans and family members who think they may be qualified for PACT Act-related benefits can learn more and file a claim with the VA now by visiting VA.gov/PACT or calling 1-800-MY-VA-411.