January 4, 2024

Reed and Whitehouse Highlight PACT Act and Encourage More Veterans to Get Screened for Toxic Exposure & Apply for New Health Benefits

Johnston, RI – Some local veterans have battled serious health issues – such as cancer or respiratory conditions – for years.  Even though they strongly believed their illness was service-connected, it wasn’t covered by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) until recently, thanks to the landmark Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act (P.L. 117-168).  The PACT Act greatly expanded eligibility for VA health care to veterans who have health problems due to exposure to toxins ranging from burn pits to Agent Orange.  The PACT Act also extended VA healthcare for combat veterans to ten years after they separate from service and added new presumptive service-connected conditions eligible for compensation benefits. 

Now, veterans who have experienced health issues because of toxic exposure during their military service can get free screenings and expanded health care benefits.

In an effort to better serve veterans and connect Rhode Islanders to the benefits they earned, U.S. Senators Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse today visited Operation Stand Down Rhode Island to encourage eligible Rhode Island veterans to get screened and apply for PACT Act benefits.  The senators estimate that as many as one in five veterans living in America today could be eligible to receive new health care or disability payouts as a result of the PACT Act.

“Enacting the PACT Act opened a crucial door for millions of veterans who were exposed to toxic substances during their military service.  Now we have to take the next step and ensure every veteran who is eligible for PACT Act benefits gets the care and compensation they earned.  That starts with getting everyone who is eligible a screening and it continues in the months and years ahead as we work together to ensure no veteran impacted by toxic exposure is left behind,” said Senator Reed, the Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee who served in the U.S. Army.  “Since the PACT Act became law, nearly 3,000 Rhode Island veterans or their survivors have filed claims for ailments stemming from toxic exposure.  We’re here to help raise awareness, remove barriers to veterans filing a claim, get them a screening, and ensure appropriate assistance is available every step of the way.”

“We have a sacred commitment to honor our veterans and make sure they have support long after returning home from service, including access to the best health care our country has to offer,” said Senator Whitehouse.  “Our PACT Act expanded health care eligibility to veterans who were exposed to toxins during their service to our country.  With a new year beginning, we want to make sure every Rhode Island veteran is aware of these benefits, which are available to individuals who may have previously been denied coverage.”

In 2022, Reed and Whitehouse helped pass the PACT Act, which President Biden signed into law.  Since then, the VA has screened over five million veterans for toxic exposures and approximately 2.1 million (43%) reported at least one potential exposure.

“As the Director of VA Providence Healthcare System I was thrilled to hear about the Passage of the PACT Act, which has greatly enhanced the healthcare and benefits for our Veterans who were exposed to toxic substances during their service,” said Larry Connell, Director of the Providence VA Medical Center.  “This law allows VA Providence Healthcare System to provide more comprehensive and personalized care to our Veterans in Rhode Island and southeastern Massachusetts, who have sacrificed so much for our nation. I encourage all Veterans who have benefited from the PACT Act to enroll with VA Providence and access the full range of health care and benefits that they have earned.”

The free screening conducted by VA health providers takes about ten minutes and includes a series of questions about service-connected exposure to toxic chemicals.

“Senators Reed and Whitehouse have and continue to zealously fight to secure the benefits and care Veterans suffering from service-connected disabilities have earned,” said Erik Wallin, Executive Director of Operation Stand Down Rhode Island.  “Serving over 2500 in-need Veterans annually at Operation Stand Down Rhode Island we witness on a daily basis how these benefits and resources change and, in some cases, save the lives of our sister and brother Veterans.”

The senators say the goal is to ensure every veteran enrolled in VA health care gets screened at least once and have urged the VA to find new and innovative ways to reach out to veterans, including those who don’t routinely access VA care.

“The Office of Veterans Services is dedicated to ensuring Veterans have access to programs and services which they’ve earned and deserve through their service and sacrifice to our nation,” said Rhode Island Office of Veterans Services Director Kasim Yarn.  “This year, we’ve created new approaches to outreach where we find, serve, and connect with Veterans and their families where they live, work and learn.  Our team will connect Veterans and military families with state and federal benefits, including the PACT Act and other resources which ensure Veterans can succeed in Rhode Island.”

According to the Biden Administration, since the PACT Act was passed, over 1,275,000 veterans or their survivors – including nearly 2,900 Rhode Islanders – have filed PACT-related claims for benefits through the VA.  More than 637,000 of them have been approved, and the VA has paid out over $3 billion on those claims.

“Every veteran needs to get screened for toxic exposures and deserves every benefit available.  They need it,” said Vance Scullin, a local Gulf War veteran and PACT Act beneficiary.

Overall, the PACT Act allocated more than $250 billion to research and provide treatment for exposure to toxins suffered in military service like burn pits and Agent Orange.

Rhode Islanders who have questions about eligibility for PACT Act benefits should contact Reed’s office at (401) 528-5200 and Whitehouse’s office at (401) 453-5294.

Chip Unruh (Reed), (202) 224-4642

Meaghan McCabe, (202) 224-2921

Press Contact

Meaghan McCabe, (202) 224-2921