November 07, 2023
Veterans’ care in the United States set all-time records in fiscal year 2023, “shattering” the agency’s performance in previous years, in large part because of an expansion of benefits under the Biden administration, U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Denis McDonough said Monday.
McDonough spoke at the National Press Club less than a week out from Veterans Day and a little over a year after President Joe Biden signed a law that opened benefits eligibility for up to 3.5 million post-9/11 veterans, and for those who served during the Vietnam and Cold War eras.
The Sgt 1st Class Heath Robinson Honoring our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act, or the PACT Act, provides that roughly two dozen chronic conditions and illnesses are presumed to be caused by breathing toxins from open burn pits or exposure to other hazards, including Agent Orange and radiation.
“Since President Biden took office, VA has delivered more care and more benefits to more veterans than ever before. When it comes to the benefits veterans have earned and deserve, we’re processing their claims faster than ever,” McDonough said at the luncheon in downtown Washington, D.C.
Under the new law, the VA has screened nearly 4.6 million veterans for lasting effects of toxic exposure during their deployments, according to Department of Veterans Affairs figures released Monday.
At the one-year anniversary of enacting the law, Biden said more than $1.85 billion in PACT-Act related benefits had reached veterans and families.
The legislation received broad bipartisan support in both chambers during the summer of 2022 but was held up for weeks at the tail end of the process after retiring Republican Sen. Pat Toomey, of Pennsylvania, rallied GOP colleagues to block a final procedural vote as a protest to funding language that had been in the bill all along.
Among the statistics Veterans Affairs highlighted Monday:• $163 billion in benefits was delivered to just over 1.5 million veterans and survivors ($150 billion of the total went toward compensation and pension payments).
• Emergency care was provided for 33,542 acute suicidal crises at no cost under a new program started in January.
McDonough credited the increased usage and services to upgraded digital tools, including telehealth options and an “overhauled” VA.gov, which now serves as “the digital front door for all services VA offers vets.”
“As a result, vets’ trust in VA has grown strong. Again, it’s not 100% but it’s stronger,” McDonough said.
According to the agency’s survey measuring trust in the VA, 78.9% of veterans expressed current VA-wide trust in the third quarter of 2023, down 0.4% since last quarter’s survey.
When broken down by gender, 80% of male veterans expressed trust compared to 71.2% of female veterans.
McDonough also credited a hiring boom at the agency for more claims being processed.
“This has been a year of hiring at record pace while retaining our record staff and, by the way, not retaining our not excellent staff,” he said.
The Veterans Benefits Administration now employs more than 32,000, according to McDonough.
“The claims process is overwhelmingly moved by a simple entry point, which is more people reviewing claims. So that’s one way we’re addressing this,” McDonough said.
The population of living veterans was estimated at 16.2 million, according to the U.S. Census American Community Survey.
Veterans can contact the agency for benefits information or register for a toxic exposure screening at VA.gov or by calling 1-800-MyVA411.
Veterans experiencing a mental health crisis or suicidal thoughts should dial 988 or chat at https://988lifeline.org/.
Pennsylvania Capital-Star is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Pennsylvania Capital-Star maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Kim Lyons for questions: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Pennsylvania Capital-Star on Facebook and Twitter.