Nearly 170,000 veterans reside in Hillsborough and Pinellas Counties, and Congresswoman Kathy Castor is urging them to enroll in the “most important expansion of healthcare benefits for veterans in our lifetime.”
She also announced that the Tampa Bay Rays would host one of the state’s three VetFest events Saturday (Aug. 5) at Tropicana Field. The goal is to ensure generations of servicemembers – and surviving family members – receive retroactive benefits before the enrollment deadline.
Local veterans and advocates joined Castor for Wednesday’s press conference at Tampa’s Veterans Memorial Park & Museum. They were there to stress the significance of the Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act.
“This is a law that is all-encompassing,” Castor said. “These are the benefits that they have earned. But it’s new … and we need your help to make sure that the word gets out.”
The bipartisan legislation became law in August 2022 after a decades-long campaign that eventually included a prominent advocate, comedian Jon Stewart. Lawmakers named the PACT Act after Army SFC Robinson, who died in 2020 from toxic exposure during his service in Iraq.
It ensures vets from World War II through the War on Terror receive previously denied healthcare and compensation for toxic exposures. Those include the “Agent Orange” deforesting chemical used in Vietnam and oil fire smoke in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The PACT Act encompasses over 20 presumptive conditions. The Veterans Administration (VA) states that if a servicemember deployed within Tampa-based U.S. Central Command’s (CENTCOM) areas of responsibility, the VA will presume the diagnosis is from toxin exposure.
“This is vitally important to the heroes who have served us so well,” Castor said. “Many who may be suffering from a cancer diagnosis and other health issues.”
The deadline to apply for retroactive benefits is Wednesday, Aug. 9. Harmful exposures are prevalent amongst service members, and federal officials estimate 6.2 million veterans could qualify for benefits.
Local Vietnam veteran Dave Braun said that burn pit exposure rendered him “100% unemployable.” He has spent the last 30 years advocating for legislation like the PACT Act.
Braun recalled his frustration that “a certain part of Congress” repeatedly dismissed the calls for expanded VA coverage until Stewart helped publicize their plight. U.S. Air Force SSGT Jose A. Sanchez, also a local advocate, urged hesitant younger veterans to receive the free screenings.
“Sometimes they don’t want to say it, they don’t want to admit it – but we need some help,” Sanchez said. “This Act is an avenue for us to take care of something that we’ve been dealing with.”
He said many younger veterans don’t realize what the PACT Act encompasses. Sanchez said he felt dizzy during a deployment to Kuwait and told the medics that “there was something wrong with the sand.”
Castor noted that the benefits cover exposure to sulfur, particulates, tainted water, pesticides, depleted uranium, industrial solvents, radiation, lead-based paint and extreme noise. “This is a broad law,” she reiterated.
Julianna Boor, director of the St. Petersburg VA Regional Office, said she has worked with the administration for 27 years. She called the PACT Act “the most sweeping piece of legislation and assistance to veterans I have ever seen.”
Boor explained that if anyone has one of 20 medical diagnoses, her office will assume it resulted from their service. While respiratory cancer was a primary condition, the legislation now includes more common illnesses like hypertension.
“It affects everyone,” she added. “Even if you’re not sure what to claim or what disabilities you might have, we can file what we call an intent-to-file.”
Boor said that would ensure veterans receive retroactive benefits after Aug. 9. She said over 80 VA representatives from the James A. Haley and Bay Pines VA Medical Centers would quickly screen applicants at Tropicana Field Saturday.
Approved veterans will receive disability compensation according to their evaluation, Boor said. In addition, surviving family members are eligible for burial benefits, health care and a VA-backed home loan.
While Aug. 9 is the cutoff to receive retroactive benefits, Boor said the VA would still process new claims after the deadline. For more information on the Aug. 5 VetFest event at Tropicana Field, visit the website here.