At Budget Hearing, Tester Questions VA Secretary McDonough on Meeting Needs of Toxic-Exposed Veterans

VA Secretary confirmed hiring of additional claims personnel to address increase of toxic exposure-related claims under Chairman’s bipartisan toxic exposure bill

Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jon Tester held a hearing today with Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Secretary Denis McDonough and Veterans Service Organizations to discuss how the agency’s proposed budget request for Fiscal Year 2023 (FY23) aims to meet the current and future needs of veterans—including those exposed to toxic substances during military service.

“Today, I’m looking forward to discussing how VA’s budget proposal will deliver on our obligation to meet veterans’ needs,” said Tester. “As we discussed at a hearing earlier this spring, VA has to recruit and retain highly-qualified staff in order to compete in this competitive hiring market. In addition to staffing, the Department must also have the necessary infrastructure in place to deliver top-notch care to veterans.”

During the hearing, Tester pressed VA Secretary McDonough on the Department’s plans to address the anticipated increase in claims following the establishment of new presumptive conditions under the Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act (PACT) Act currently being considered in the Senate.

He continued, “If we’re able to pass the Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our PACT Act, which adds less than a quarter of the claims in FY23 that you anticipate for Asthma, Sinusitis, and Rhinitis, what kind of resource support would you need?”

“We’ve been looking at a series of enhancements under existing authorities and existing dollars to get ready for this,” replied McDonough. “So, from automation to hires—we’re in the process of hiring over 2,000 claims personnel—to potential contracting and claims process improvements. We think we would be in a good position to handle that in the first year.”

In the second panel, the Committee also heard from leaders from Paralyzed Veterans of America, Disabled American Veterans, and the Veterans of Foreign Wars—authors of this year’s Independent Budget—who weighed in on the agency’s resourcing needs.

The Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our PACT Act of 2022 is comprehensive legislation championed by Senator Tester to deliver all generations of toxic-exposed veterans their earned health care and benefits from the VA for the first time in the nation’s history. Among its many priorities, this legislation will expand health care for Post-9/11 combat veterans, create a framework for the establishment of future presumptions of service connection related to toxic exposure, expand VA’s list of service presumptions, and improve resources to support VA’s claims processing.

Tester’s opening statement is available HERE.