The Department of Veterans Affairs will begin processing PACT Act claims next month, and the agency’s new toxic exposure screening tool is helping to identify eligible veterans.
On Nov. 8, VA medical centers and clinics began offering a new toxic exposure screening to all veterans enrolled in VA health care, leveraging a new toxic exposure screening tool. The screening, which takes five to 10 minutes, is intended to help qualify veterans for new PACT Act benefits and improve veterans' long-term health care.
“The screening — we believe — will help a veteran with their long-term health plan and how our care teams will connect them to follow up resources,” VA Secretary Denis McDonough told GovCIO Media and Research during a Dec. 1 press conference.
As of Nov. 21, VA has completed 286,400 screenings, McDonough added. Of the veterans screened, 38.6% report at least one exposure concern. Of those reporting exposure concerns, 16% reported exposure concerns related to burn pits and 15% reported exposure concerns related to Agent Orange.
“Information collected during the toxic exposure screening will be included in the Veteran's electronic health record and will be used to connect Veterans with resources, services, and benefits available, as well as provide guidance that Veterans be engaged in ongoing care or establish care in VA or the community to address their exposure concerns,” VA’s Nov. 25 Federal Register notice stated.
According to the notice, VHA intends to renew the Paperwork Reduction Act (PRA) clearance for the screening tool for a full three years.
As VA ramps up to begin processing PACT Act claims starting Jan. 1, 2023, the agency is expanding its workforce and automation as well as revising payment policies to ensure veterans receive their benefits in a timely manner.
During DAV's 2022 National Convention earlier this year, VA Acting Benefits Undersecretary Josh Jacobs noted his team is anticipating additional backlogs as the number of claims filed increases. While the number of claims filed has increase, McDonough noted Nov. 7 that VA is processing claims “faster than ever before.”
“It's difficult until we dig into each of the cases to know how quickly we can resolve them. Some cases will be resolved in days, some in weeks, some in months,” McDonough said during the December press conference. “Please bear with us. Some will be resolved quickly, and some will take longer.”
VA is also revising its payment policy to enable the agency to make partial payments on claims packages. That plan will go into effect as VA begins processing claims in January 2023.
“For example, a veteran files a package that has up to 10 claims in it, and we can resolve three quickly, but the remaining will take some additional time. We will make that initial ruling, begin paying those benefits immediately, and then go back to working on the rest of the claims,” McDonough said. “That's consistent with keeping an open line with veterans, but also trying to make clear that we are working the case and, as we can close issues, get them out the door.”