Nearly 2M veterans screened for toxins as part of benefit expansion

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is poised to break the two million mark for the number of veterans screened nationally for toxins, perhaps as soon as this week, as part of the largest-ever expansion of benefits for veterans, the PACT Act.

And the VA intends to to reach out to more than three million additional veterans who may be eligible for PACT Act benefits, Dr. Shereef Elnahal, the VA’s under secretary for health, said in a virtual media roundtable Tuesday.

“Every primary care clinic in the country is now doing this, and to good effect,” he said.

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The PACT Act expands VA health care and benefits for veterans exposed to burn pits, Agent Orange and other toxins. The law adds more than 20 conditions related to exposures, including high blood pressure, now presumed to be related to military service.

Before the act, veterans faced higher hurdles in order to demonstrate past toxic exposure.

The VA is finding that around 40% of veterans screened are saying they had been exposed to toxins at some time in their military service, Elnahal said.

VA health care patient enrollment is up since the enactment of the PACT Act. More than 144,000 veterans have enrolled for VA care since August, a rise of of 21,000 patients.

“The PACT Act is one of the largest, most significant increases of federal benefits for veterans in decades,” Greene County Veterans Services Executive Director Tim Espich told the Dayton Daily News last year.

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Elnahal said veterans identified as needing care under the act will be encouraged to apply for “enhanced (VA) benefits.”

“The reality is, a lot of these primary care (physicians) were not necessarily tracking that a veteran had been exposed to toxins during their service,” he said. “Does that inform their current scope of their co-morbidities, will that allow them to enhance care and perhaps change their (medical) regimen for a specific chronic disease that they have?”

Under PACT, toxic exposure screening becomes more routine.

“Every veteran’s toxic exposure is now in their medical record and will be visible to any provider caring for them,” he said.

Elnahal also singled out attracting and keeping good employees as a top priority.

He said the VA health system now has about 388,000 employees nationally, up from about 380,000 at the start in the fiscal year in October, growth of just over 2%, due to a blend of new hires and fewer retirements.

“Our people enable everything we do,” he said.

Some six million veterans regularly receive health care from the VA.

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