Flathead Beacon: Tester Hears from Veterans, Discusses PACT Act During Kalispell Visit

by Denali Sagner

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester on Friday met with veterans and service providers in Kalispell to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the PACT Act — the sweeping federal legislation that expands healthcare coverage for veterans exposed to toxic chemicals during military service — and to discuss healthcare access for former service members.

The Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act, or PACT Act, was signed into law by President Joe Biden on Aug. 10, 2022, and appropriated $680 billion over 10 years for the extension and expansion of healthcare benefits, mental health services and clinics operated by the United States Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). The initiative expands VA disability and healthcare access for veterans exposed to toxic chemicals during the Vietnam War, Gulf War and post-9/11 era.

In order to receive disability benefits from the VA, veterans must prove that their disability was caused by their service, unless they have a condition that is presumed to be connected to their time in the military.

Veterans have long pointed to open-air burn pits — a regular form of waste disposal used by troops during U.S. involvement in the Middle East in the 1990s and 2000s — as the impetus for various cancers and respiratory problems, yet have often had claims denied by the VA due to their inability to prove the connection between burn pit exposure and their illnesses.

The PACT Act adds 23 such “presumptive conditions” related to open-air burn pits and toxic exposure, and expands the list of Agent Orange related presumptions to include veterans who served in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Guam, American Samoa and Johnston Atoll, in addition to Vietnam.

Tester, the only Democratic member of Montana’s congressional delegation, co-sponsored the PACT Act and has served as the chair of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee since 2021. He praised what he called an “incredible, proactive lobbying effort” from veterans groups to pass the legislation.

The senator was joined by representatives from the VA, local veterans service providers, the Kalispell VA clinic and Vietnam Veterans of America, as well as a number of local veterans.

“As long as you guys can get those benefits and that healthcare, we’re doing the right thing,” Tester said.

While veterans at the roundtable expressed appreciation for local service providers, as well as for the expansion of benefits under the PACT Act, they voiced frustration with the VA health system— namely, with long wait times, confusion stemming from overlapping processes and understaffing on both the local and national levels.

John Wise, a veteran and retired Colorado State Patrol district commander, recounted four failed attempts to receive VA benefits after Agent Orange and burn pit exposure in Southeast Asia and the Middle East left him with numerous health conditions.

“For all of us guys who served in Vietnam,” Pat Roberts, a local veteran, said. “I was exposed to toxic waste for 365 days.”

Former service members also raised concerns over the generational impacts of toxic exposure on their children and grandchildren and the difficulties of getting younger veterans screened for health conditions. Many cited confusion with VA processes as a deterrent for getting veterans registered with the government agency.

“I feel that it’s very critical with all these young veterans, whether they have issues or not, that there’s some continuity,” Willa Burgess, president of the Flathead Valley chapter of the Associates of Vietnam Veterans of America, said.

Representatives from the VA emphasized that in order for veterans to receive retroactive benefits under the PACT Act — or benefits for conditions or service locations that were not covered before the passage of the act — they must submit an “intent to file” or apply for benefits by Aug. 9.

More information on how to receive PACT Act benefits can be found here.