On Aug. 10 of this year, President Biden signed into law the Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act of 2022. The legislation impacts generations of veterans by expanding Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) benefits and care for veterans exposed to burn pits and other toxic substances. The PACT Act is the most significant expansion of VA health-care benefits and services in more than 30 years and could impact as many as five million veterans.
During The American Legion National Convention in Milwaukee on Aug. 27, a high-ranking official with the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) had straight-forward guidance for those attending the Legion’s Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation Commission meeting.
Ron Burke, VBA’s Deputy Under Secretary for Policy and Oversight, said the PACT Act allows VBA, “in partnership with VSOs like The American Legion, to provide those who have been exposed to burn pits and other toxins with the benefits they’ve earned. Now comes the challenge and opportunity of delivering the PACT Act’s promise to everyone affected by it.
“This is probably the most important part of my remarks today. It is instructions on what you should do now. When you go back home and talk to your folks, please encourage veterans and survivors to file their claims now. Do not wait.”
Burke said VA is working on its IT systems, and its rules and regulations “to make sure that we start processing those claims on Jan. 1 (2023). We want you to file your claims now. Don’t wait until January.
“What’s happening between passage of the law and January is we’re doing a massive amount of hiring. We’re hiring thousands of claims processors, because our commitment is not just to deliver the promise on the PACT Act, but all of our work.”
A component of the PACT Act was the Camp Lejeune Justice Act, which will provide judicial relief to victims of water contamination at Camp Lejeune. One Legionnaire expressed concern over the amount of law firms advertising to ability to file claims related to Camp Lejeune. Chanin Nuntavong, executive director of the Legion’s Washington, D.C., office, said that after the national convention the Legion would be launching a print and digital campaign about the way for veterans to take appropriate action on the Camp Lejeune claims.
Commission members also heard from two American Legion Legislative staffers: Advaith Thampi and Olivia Babine.
Thampi shared the success the Legion had recently with its Grassroots Action Center, which allows Legionnaires to directly contact members of Congress electronically. Thampi noted that in urging passage of the PACT Act, Legionnaires sent out almost 30,000 messages of members of Congress.
“That is a huge increase from what we’ve been doing, and that is exactly what we need to keep doing,” Thampi said. “We are your voice in Washington, D.C. When you pass resolutions that have legislative intent, that’s how we execute your voice. And when we can work together like that, we’re really unstoppable.”
Thampi also urged Legionnaires to share what the PACT Act will provide to their fellow veterans. “It’s our job to reach out to our brothers and sisters that might not be aware,” he said.
Babine briefed the commission on several pieces of legislation working their way through Congress that are of interest to the Legion. She also said the Legislative Division is looking for ways to incorporate the Legion’s “Be the One” suicide prevention initiative into its lobbying efforts. “Our current lobbying efforts fit in well with the overall goals of the campaign,” she said, noting that H.R. 6411 – the STRONG (Support The Resiliency of Our Nation's Great) Veterans Act of 2022 – fits in closely with the initiative.
“This bill is a veterans mental health omnibus bill,” she said. “It has dozens of provisions that (the Legion) has supported as stand-alone bills. Some of the most important ones are expanding the Vet Center workforce, VA’s specialist program … and mental health and suicide prevention outreach to minority veterans and American Indian and Alaska native veterans.”
Another component of the STRONG Veterans Act of 2022 is language similar to a Buddy Check bill already introduced in Congress. The bill would direct VA to establish a "Buddy Check Week," provide educational opportunities, materials, and references for veterans to learn how to conduct personal wellness checks, as well as require increased resources for the Veterans Crisis Line to handle any potential increased usage during the designated week.
“If H.R. 6411 is signed into law, it would have the same effect for implementing the Buddy Check Week bill as if the stand-alone bill were signed into law,” Babine said. “This is just another avenue to potentially get it signed into law.”
Dr. Linda Torres, Special Assistant to VA’s Undersecretary for Health, spent part of her address discussing VA’s telehealth efforts and barriers in access to care for veterans in non-urban areas. She noted that between a quarter to a third of the nation’s veterans live in rural areas, and around 25 percent of those do not have access to Internet.
One way to address this, Torres said, is through Project ATLAS (Accessing Telehealth through Local Area Stations). Project ATLAS is a collaborative effort between Philips North America and VA to bring health care to rural veterans by working with The American Legion and others to combine the convenience of the retail clinic model with Philips telehealth technology and access to VA caregivers — right in an American Legion post. The third American Legion post to host a site opened over the summer at Post 5 in Emporia, Kan.
“What you’re able to do is … access telehealth appointments (in rural areas),” Torres said. “It also provides a safe space for folks who have access to these spots. Thank you to The American Legion for your partnership with us.”
Pat Sargent, senior vice president and general manager for Oracle Cerner Government Services, gave an update on his company’s Electronic Health Record modernization for VA that is similar to the one created for the Department of Defense to provide a seamless transition for the records from DoD to VA. A retired Army major general who joined Oracle Cerner last spring, Sargent told the commission admitted “Challenges. Yes, we have challenges. As we all know, this is a very ambitious endeavor that we’ve embarked upon right now. We’re talking about going into both the DoD and the VA and changing out every part of their electronic health records to make sure that it’s seamless, interoperable, but more importantly that it provides transparency and the right analytics to the provider at the right time.
“With that said, we are, at this point, halfway done with DoD. We are live at five (VA) sites. We were met with a lot of challenges.”
American Legion Past National Commander Dave Rehbein noted after Sargent’s address that “this is more than just a technology challenge. There’s some human element involved in here that has slowed this down. But I want you to think a little farther down the road … about that cohort of people that are out there receiving their care through community care. How we can access those records. How we can bring those medical providers into the system so that that stays one medical record, rather than being one here in the VA and another one out there in their doctor’s office.”
Sargent said the capability is there in the new system to allow patients to retrieve information from outside care “without someone have to put it on a disk … to put back into your electronic record. Those (community providers) have to link into our actual system to be able to do that.”