The Honoring Our PACT Act: a game-changer for Arkansas veterans affected by toxic exposure
Sri Benson (center) holds a photograph of his wife Katie, an Army medic who he said died due to toxic exposure, during the signing ceremony for the PACT Act at the White House on Aug. 10, 2022, The Sgt. First Class Heath Robinson Honoring our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act is the biggest expansion of veteran’s benefits since the Agent Orange Act of 1991.(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Arkansas is home to over 222,000 veterans, which equals nearly 10% of the state’s entire population. During the last century, many were stationed on military bases with known environmental contamination, making these brave people susceptible to developing life-threatening diseases such as liver cancer, prostate cancer, leukemia, and bladder cancer.
While Arkansas offers special benefits for veterans and their families, including property tax exemptions and state employment preferences, this is not enough for those who are toxic exposure victims, as the cost of treatment can be extremely high. Thankfully, on Aug. 10, 2022, the Honoring Our PACT Act was enacted, a bill that expands healthcare and benefits for more than five million veterans with a history of toxic exposure.
There are two military bases in Arkansas with documented environmental contamination. One of them is Little Rock Air Force Base. Located in Jacksonville, it was founded in 1953. The main toxic agents on military installations nationwide are perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, commonly known as PFAS. They ended up in the environment of military bases due to firefighters using aqueous film-forming foam, which sometimes contains up to 98% of these harmful chemicals.
At Little Rock Air Force Base, the maximum level of PFOS and PFOA ever measured was 390,000 parts per trillion, which exceeds the safe exposure limit by a whopping 5,571 times. These two substances from the PFAS group have been deemed the most dangerous. Inevitably, service members who were stationed there after 1967 were exposed to PFAS.
The other military base in Arkansas with a legacy of environmental contamination is Eaker Air Force Base. Established in 1942, it is located in Blytheville. The highest level of PFOS and PFOA at the military facility was 280,000 parts per trillion, eclipsing the safe exposure limit by 4,000 times.
A case similar to that of these two military bases is that of Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. There, in addition to PFAS, the drinking water was contaminated with solvents, including trichloroethylene, vinyl chloride, and perchloroethylene, for nearly 35 years. As many as one million people inhabited Camp Lejeune while the drinking water was toxic. A day after the Honoring Our PACT Act was enacted, the Camp Lejeune Justice Act was also signed into law. Under it, veterans who spent time at this military base and became ill can now obtain compensation from the government.
The Honoring Our PACT Act is, without a doubt, a game-changer for veterans whose health was compromised by contact with harmful substances. It expands and extends the eligibility criteria for VA healthcare for veterans exposed to toxic agents, adds over twenty new presumptive conditions for burn pits and other toxic exposures, and requires the VA to provide a toxic exposure screening to every veteran in the VA healthcare system.
Regular screening is crucial in the early detection of a potential disease caused by toxic exposure, so by having veterans’ health periodically evaluated, we should witness fewer and fewer premature deaths caused by the diseases veterans develop. Furthermore, the addition of new diagnoses that may qualify veterans for VA benefits, including compensation, will allow them to afford the treatment they need.
As the largest healthcare and benefit expansion in VA history, the Honoring Our PACT Act is a major victory for millions of veterans struggling with awful diseases caused by toxic exposure. Because of the newly added diagnoses, the family members and dependents of a deceased veteran may now qualify for various VA benefits if they meet the eligibility requirements. These benefits refer to Dependency and Indemnity Compensation, Accrued, and Burial benefits.
Moreover, healthcare through the Civilian Health and Medical Program of the Department of Veterans Affairs may also be available for survivors and dependents of veterans who are or would have been eligible for benefits for a service-related disability. Therefore, the newly enacted Honoring Our PACT Act will greatly benefit veterans who, until recently, would not have been entitled to VA compensation or free healthcare.
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