Calls by Tennessee veterans double after expansion of VA healthcare benefits

By: - January 23, 2023 6:00 am
WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 29: Brielle Robinson, daughter of the late Army Sgt. First Class Heath Robinson, joins veterans advocacy groups, activists, politicians and fellow victims' families during a news conference about military burn pits legislation outside the U.S. Capitol on March 29, 2022 in Washington, DC. The legislation, called the SFC Heath Robinson Burn Pit Transparency Act passed the House of Representatives and is aimed at addressing issues impacting toxic-exposed veterans’ access to earned benefits and care. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON, DC – MARCH 29: Brielle Robinson, daughter of the late Army Sgt. First Class Heath Robinson, joins veterans advocacy groups, activists, politicians and fellow victims’ families during a news conference about military burn pits legislation outside the U.S. Capitol on March 29, 2022 in Washington, DC. The legislation, called the SFC Heath Robinson Burn Pit Transparency Act passed the House of Representatives and is aimed at addressing issues impacting toxic-exposed veterans’ access to earned benefits and care. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

More than 100,000 veterans in Tennessee may have been exposed to toxic substances during their military service and could be eligible for newly expanded healthcare benefits, according to the state’s department of veteran’s services.

In August, President Joe Biden signed the PACT Act into law, expanding Veterans Administration  benefits for men and women who were exposed to Agent Orange, burn pits, radiation or other toxic substances during the Vietnam, Gulf War, and post-9/11 eras.

Since then calls to a state veterans helpline have doubled — from an average of 500 calls each month to 1,000, Tennessee National Guard Gen. (Ret.) Tommy Baker told lawmakers on Friday.

The workload of the state division that aids veterans in applying for benefits — or appealing denials of benefits — has increased by 30%, according to Baker, who called it one of the most “impactful changes” the agency has experienced. 

The department is seeking a $5 million budget increase, in large part to add to marketing efforts about the new benefits and to aid military veterans sickened as a result of exposure in filing claims. 

The PACT Act has been billed as potentially the largest expansion of VA healthcare in history. 

The new federal law adds to the list of health conditions presumed to be the result of exposure to toxic substances such as Agent Orange, radiation and burn pits. It requires that toxic exposure screenings be offered to every veteran enrolled in VA healthcare.

Ex-military who received less than honorable discharges are not eligible to file claims despite potential exposures, a point of controversy prior to the law’s passage. 

More than 5 million veterans nationally may be eligible for the expanded benefits. Thus far, veterans nationwide filed more than 200,0000 claims last year – an all-time record, Baker said.

 

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Anita Wadhwani
Anita Wadhwani

Anita Wadhwani is a senior reporter for the Tennessee Lookout. The Tennessee AP Broadcasters and Media (TAPME) named her Journalist of the Year in 2019 as well as giving her the Malcolm Law Award for Investigative Journalism. Wadhwani is formerly an investigative reporter with The Tennessean who focused on the impact of public policies on the people and places across Tennessee. She is a graduate of Columbia University in New York and the University of California at Berkeley School of Journalism. Wadhwani lives in Nashville with her partner and two children.

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