Great Falls Tribune: Tester urges veterans to enroll in PACT Act to get new toxic exposure benefits

by David Murray

Montana Senator Jon Tester was in Great Falls on Thursday to herald the recent expansion of the PACT Act, a new resource for military veterans exposed to a wide range of toxins including Agent Orange, pollutants from burn pits, and radiation.

First passed by Congress in August 2022, the PACT Act (Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics) was originally limited to offering new healthcare and benefit options to veterans from the Vietnam era. Little more than three weeks ago the act was expanded to include disability claims from all veterans who served in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Gulf War, and any other combat zone after 9/11.

“Military toxic exposure is not a new thing,” Tester told a small gathering of veterans and their families. “Veterans have been exposed to toxins for decades in many different conflicts across the globe, all the way back to mustard gas in World War I, but this country would not take care of the generations of veterans who developed serious conditions and illnesses directly related to toxic exposure until the PACT Act was passed. This law finally delivers to generations of veterans who were exposed to toxins during their military service the healthcare and benefits that they have earned.”

According to information from the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, exposure to burn pits has long been known to cause cancers, sleep apnea and other respiratory, cardiovascular, and neurological conditions. However, about 70 percent of all disability claims related to these toxins were denied because of service members’ inability to prove a link between their conditions and the hazardous substances.

Since passage of the PACT Act more than one million additional U.S. veterans have been approved for additional benefits, with over $2.2 billion paid out to veterans or their surviving beneficiaries. On Friday the Department of Veterans Affairs Today, the Department of Veterans Affairs announced it has enrolled 1,614 Montana Veterans in VA health care over the past year – 20.38% more than it enrolled the previous year. Nationally, 401,006 veterans enrolled in VA health care over the past year – 30% more than it enrolled in the previous year representing a nearly a 50% increase over pandemic-level enrollment in 2020.

“The PACT Act is the largest expansion of benefits and healthcare in the history of the VA (Veterans Administration),” Tester said. “The VA has taken big steps earlier this month to expand healthcare to any veteran exposed to toxins at home or abroad. This expansion of healthcare eligibility that went into effect on March fifth is now allowing millions of vets to become eligible for healthcare years earlier than what was required by that PACT Act.”

Montana Senator Jon Tester in Great Falls on Thursday, detailing the expansion of the PACT Act which guarantees benefits to veterans harmed by exposure to toxins during their military service.

Accompanying Tester were several veterans who detailed the experiences of colleagues who developed chronic health conditions after being exposed to toxins but were denied benefits because they could not prove a connection to chemical exposure. These included Dean Martin, a U.S. Army veteran who told the story of a close friend who was exposed to Agent Orange while serving in Vietnam.

“He came back, and Agent Orange took him out early,” Martin said. “He had two children, a wife, and a new business, but I’m sad to say he died bankrupt. He died without being able to have the comfort of knowing his family was going to be taken care of. Those kind of things don’t have to happen anymore.”

The former National Commander of the Disabled American Veterans organization (DAV), Joe Parsctich, told of another veteran who was recently granted expanded benefits after being denied a decade earlier.

“I was at the White House on the day the PACT Act was signed into law,” Parsctich began. “Since then, I have seen its undeniable impact on the toxic exposed veterans and their families. For example, in 2012 a fellow Vietnam veteran, Alfred Lewis, Jr., sought out DAV’s assistance in filing claims for disabilities related to his exposure the Agent Orange. The VA granted service connection for his heart disease but denied his claim for hypertension (high blood pressure) as it was not a presumptive and was determined to not be related to his heart disease.”

“In the Fall of 2022 the DAV reached out to Mr. Lewis and asked him to come back down and apply for the hypertension due to the passage of the PACT Act,” Parsctich continued. “In early 2023 Mr. Lewis was granted entitlement due to hypertension. Now, he’s entitled to multiple additional benefits including dental health which he was denied previously.”

Tester encouraged all veterans who may have been exposed to toxins and who were denied benefits in the past to contact the Veterans Administration. Veterans must first enroll in the PACT Act program and will then receive an initial toxic exposure screening. Follow-up screenings are then available every five years.

“We’ve got a lot of veterans out there who have been turned down by the VA,” Tester noted. “We’ve got a lot of veterans who have never been to the VA. If we can get folks informed that the VA has a PACT Act now that they’re using to help folks get healthcare and benefits. If you were turned down before, give another run at it because you might be able to get healthcare and benefits this time around. It’s really important that we get that message out.”

Veterans and their families seeking information on the PACT Act and to see if they may be eligible for additional benefits should visit the Veterans Administration website at