Thousands of veterans who faced toxic exposure risks in the military may be eligible for expanded health care options through Veterans Affairs starting this March, under plans being finalized by department officials.

White House leaders last fall said they hoped to accelerate portions of the Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act — better known as the PACT Act — passed by Congress in 2022 which expanded medical care and benefits eligibility for millions of former service members.

In the last 16 months, about 100,000 veterans have enrolled in VA health care thanks to provisions in the legislation, and more than 697,000 have received benefits claims approved.

But several other sections of the law were scheduled to be phased in over coming years, including language extending health care to all veterans stationed in Iraq after August 1990 or in Afghanistan after September 2001, many of whom were exposed to toxic smoke from burn pits.

Under Secretary for Health Dr. Shereef Elnahal told reporters on Jan. 22 that officials are confident they can handle the influx of new patients now, and so will move ahead with some of those requirements early. The move will make free health care options available to some veterans years sooner than advocates had anticipated.

“It’s a substantial number of veterans who will be eligible for VA health care,” Elnahal said. “But as a reminder, we hired more external folks into the VA health care system last fiscal year than we ever had before.”

Despite the large number of newly eligible veterans, department planners expect about 21,000 to take advantage of the free health care this year. That’s because many of the newly eligible are already using private health care options through work or family.

About 85,000 additional veterans are expected to enroll in VA health care over the next decade as a result of the PACT Act changes. The new eligibility groups include:

  • Veterans who “participated in a toxic exposure risk activity” while on active-duty or active-duty training;
  • Veterans assigned to a duty station in Bahrain, Iraq, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, or the United Arab Emirates after Aug. 2, 1990;
  • Veterans assigned to a duty station in Afghanistan, Djibouti, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, or Syria after Sept. 11, 2001;
  • Veterans deployed in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Freedom’s Sentinel, Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation New Dawn, Operation Inherent Resolve, or Resolute Support Mission.

Under the law, the VA Secretary has the authority to expand that list to include additional countries or operations in the future.

The new cohort of veterans will be placed in priority group 6, putting them in line for care ahead of individuals with no service-connected disabilities but still behind veterans with severe injuries and illnesses from their time in the military. Staffing and appointment availability will determine whether the new group of veterans can receive some or all of their health care through VA.

The designation will also drop co-pays for most inpatient care and some outpatient medical visits. Officials said veterans will remain in that priority group unless VA determines they are eligible to be moved up into a more advantageous category.

Details on the changes will be outlined on the department’s website in early March.

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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