CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Combat veterans who left the military more than a decade ago can still sign up for Veterans Affairs health care, thanks to sweeping toxic exposure legislation approved last year.

But time is running out.

On Tuesday, VA Secretary Denis McDonough brought that message to the annual American Legion conference being held in North Carolina. He asked the several thousand group members assembled from across the country to relay his pleas to their fellow veterans back home.

“You have to act fast,” he said. “You have until Sept. 30th to apply. That’s only a few weeks away. If it’s you, get your application in. If it’s your buddy, tell them to get their application in.”

Veterans who deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan and other combat zones and left active duty between Sept. 11, 2001, and Oct. 1, 2013, can enroll in the federal health care option for the first time thanks to provisions included the Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act, better known as the PACT Act. But they only have until Sept. 30.

That looming deadline has led to this second public relations blitz on PACT Act benefits in less than a month, following a push from VA officials to get veterans to meet a mid-August deadline for retroactive disability payouts connected to the bill.

McDonough said department outreach efforts will increase as the deadline approaches.

“We’re already directly communicating to veterans,” he told Military Times. “I think we’ll hear more reaction from that in the coming weeks, and then we’re going to obviously crank up our communication more.”

The PACT Act is among the most sweeping veterans benefits legislation to be passed in recent decades, potentially affecting as many as one in five living veterans in America today. It includes expanded disability benefits for 12 types of cancer and 12 other respiratory illnesses linked to burn pit smoke exposure in the most recent wars, as well as hypertension for veterans who served in Vietnam and were exposed to the chemical defoliant Agent Orange.

Since the PACT Act was signed into law in August 2023, more than 344,000 Veterans have enrolled in VA health care. Officials did not have an estimate as to how many of those left the service before Oct. 1, 2013, or how many more could miss out on health care eligibility if they miss the upcoming deadline.

The health care eligibility options were added to the law to allow individuals whose combat zone injuries — particularly those burn pit illnesses— may not have developed in the first few years after individuals left the military. Some respiratory ailments lay dormant for years before veterans start showing symptoms.

Under the PACT Act bill, veterans are granted VA health care coverage for only 10 years following their separation from the military. In cases where individuals are found to have serious military-connected health issues, that coverage can be extended longer.

Lawmakers included in the legislation a provision to give additional time to veterans who left the service between 2001 and 2013 to ensure their potential medical issues were not ignored.

VA officials for years have emphasized the importance of veterans using free veterans medical benefits, both for cost-savings and because of the potential long-term health benefits. Past studies have shown that veterans enrolled in VA health care are less likely to attempt suicide than their peers and more likely to get specialty care for a variety of military-related ailments.

More information on enrolling in VA health care is available through the department’s website, or by calling 1-800-698-2411.

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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