Tester: Veterans Need to Sign up for Toxic-Exposure Benefits

by Laura Lundquist

Too many people know the devastation of losing their homes after overwhelming medical bills destroy their meager savings. While no one should have to endure that, it can be worse when good intentions – serving in the military – are what triggers the illness.

Gulf War veteran Marcus Raggio knows that all too well. In 2016, he received a cancer diagnosis that meant he couldn’t work while undergoing treatment. His medical bills began to mount and add to the domestic bills that everyone deals with. He tried to get medical help from the U.S. Veterans Administration but was denied.

Then a year ago, his prayers were answered after Congress passed and President Joe Biden signed the Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics, or PACT Act, in August. The act expanded VA health care and benefits for veterans exposed to burn pits and other toxic substances.

“They finally said, “Yup, you do (qualify), because you were in five out of those 10 places (identified for toxin exposure). They couldn’t deny that the odds were in my favor. So they gave me 100% back-pay for a couple years. I was able to pay back some money I owed, got our vehicles fixed, got our house caught up, and by then, that was about $30,000 worth of money,” Raggio said.

On Friday, Raggio and other veterans thanked Sen. Jon Tester, who visited the Missoula VFW Post to further publicize the benefits for veterans, some of which have yet to sign up. Tester, who chairs the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, was one of three original sponsors of S.3373, the Senate version of the PACT Act, in early 2022.

“If it weren’t for the PACT Act, I would have lost my house, money for my kid’s food or my medicine for PTSD,” Raggio said. “My family’s going to make it.”

In the past, the VA recognized the obvious physical injuries of war and even related psychological damage that results in post-traumatic stress disorder, but not the delayed illnesses that can result from exposure to toxins from military burn pits or Agent Orange.

It’s estimated that about 3.5 million U.S. service members have been exposed to burn pits, according to the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, a nonprofit veterans organization. The burn pits were used in Afghanistan and Iraq to deal with medical waste, human waste and other waste needed for disposal. Exposures to those toxins can lead to asthma, rhinitis and cancer.

The PACT Act got some publicity in July 2022, when comedian Jon Stewart joined veterans outside the Capitol to protest Republican senators who were blocking the bill. Stewart was also an advocate for 9/11 first responders, who suffered from exposure to burned toxins while trying to save people from the Twin Towers.

Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., claimed that the bill would create $400 billion in discretionary spending, labeling it a “budgetary gimmick,” even though an almost identical bill had passed in June. He was backed by 41 Republicans, including Sen. Steve Daines.

Tester remembered that fight to pass the law.

“It’s why veterans slept outside the capitol in sweltering August heat demanding that Congress do its job and get the PACT Act passed,” Tester said. “The Pact act is the largest expansion of benefits and healthcare for veterans in the history of this country.”

The GOP senators reversed themselves a week later after adding some amendments.

Tester pointed out that the benefits aren’t limited to those exposed to burn pits after 9/11. They apply to veterans exposed to any toxins connected to warfare from any time period, including Agent Orange, a toxic herbicide used to defoliate the jungles of East Asia. They can also go to survivors of veterans who died from their exposure.

During the Vietnam War, James Booth served on the submarine, Sam Houston, based out of Guam, which was a storage facility for Agent Orange. Booth said he ended up with neck and throat cancer.

“I made it through it,” Booth said. “The PACT Act did some amazing things for me. My disability went from 10% to 80%. It made a significant difference in my life. I hope there are other people who can benefit from this also.”

Mike Jarnevic, a 42-year veteran, said he recently applied to the Agent Orange Registry under the PACT Act but was also exposed to saran gas and burn pits in Bagram, Afghanistan.

“I’m really happy this is finally being addressed, because there are so many veterans that have suffered, going clear back to Rondo in Hiroshima,” Jarnevic said, pointing to 96-year-old Rondo Scharfe sitting next to him. “There are all kinds of agents that people can be exposed to in the military.”

Montana has more than 78,600 veterans, ranking it fifth in the nation for states with the highest percentage of veterans at almost 9%, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. So it’s likely that other veterans would qualify who haven’t signed up yet, Tester said.

“It always surprises me when the numbers come out that there are so many in Montana who are not part of the VA system, when, in fact, this system is built for the veterans – no one else,” Tester said. “If you know any vets who have been exposed, get ‘em in.”

In the year or so since the passage of the PACT Act, the VA has received more than 1.2 million PACT Act claims nationwide, including more than 5,600 claims from Montana. Of those, more than 531,000 veterans and survivors across the nation are now receiving PACT Act benefits, including more than 3,200 in Montana, resulting in a payout of $3.1 billion. That’s put some pressure on the VA, but Tester said the agency is working on hiring more healthcare providers and claims processors.

Sadly, whenever federal money is made available, some people set up fraudulent schemes to try to steal some of it.

Once the PACT Act was passed, it made veterans more of a target for those wanting to swindle them out of their money. Many unaccredited companies and individuals began offering “help” but then they’d charge illegal fees, hire debt collectors to hound veterans or cause veterans to miss out on their VA benefits.

Prior to 2006, such activities were penalized, but a Congressional amendment removed the penalties and the ability of the VA Office of General Counsel to prosecute offenders who aren’t accredited.

So in March, Tester, along with Sens. John Boozman, R-Ark., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., introduced the GUARD VA Benefits Act, S. 740, which reinstates a fine of up to $500 or up to two years in prison or both. The bill is currently in the Senate Veteran’s Affairs Committee, chaired by Tester. A similar bill has been introduced in the House.

In August, 44 attorneys general wrote a letter in support of the GUARD VA Benefits Act.

“The GUARD VA Benefits Act would remove the ability of unaccredited, unregulated, and often unscrupulous actors to target and prey upon those veterans with impunity. It holds them accountable not just to the law but also to the veterans and their families by giving them options for redress when they find themselves victims of those same actors,” the letter said.

The five attorney generals who didn’t sign were from Montana, Arkansas, Alabama, Iowa and Nebraska.