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Thompson Town Hall touts expanded healthcare benefits for U.S. veterans

U.S. Congressman Mike Thompson was in Yountville Tuesday evening to spread word about recently-expanded federal benefits in veteran healthcare services.

U.S. Rep. Mike Thompson (right), a St. Helena resident, listens to a question being asked by an area veteran during a Town Hall meeting in Yountville Tuesday on expanded healthcare benefits for former U.S. service men and women.

U.S. Congressman Mike Thompson was in Yountville Tuesday evening to spread word about recently-expanded federal benefits in veteran healthcare services.

The Town Hall meeting, held at the Yountville Community Center and   live-streamed on Thompson’s Facebook page, focused on 2022 landmark legislation aimed at making care available for veterans exposed to burn pits and other toxic substances.

The Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act also expanded care and benefits for veterans of the Vietnam era, Gulf War era and Post-9/11 era, Thompson told those in attendance on Tuesday.

“The PACT Act is, I believe, the biggest expansion of VA [Veterans Administration] healthcare benefits, certainly in my lifetime, and it recognized for the first time that exposure to toxic materials needed to be dealt with,” Thompson told the crowd. “There were so many folks who had exposure and they were not being able to get their healthcare needs met. So we passed the PACT Act, because if you serve your country in the United States military, you shouldn’t have to fight for your healthcare. It should be automatic.”

Under the PACT Act, Veterans Administration officials are mandated to assume that certain respiratory illnesses and cancers are related to burn pit exposure, helping veterans access their benefits without having to prove the illness was the result of their service.

Burn pits were used as a waste disposal method by U.S. Armed Forces during the Gulf War and wars in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq. Hundreds of these open-air garbage dumps existed, often close to encampments where American soldiers lived, worked, ate and slept. According to reports, everything considered to be waste – from plastics and electronics; Humvee parts and tires, to biological waste and batteries, hazardous chemicals and munitions – was soaked in jet fuel and burned.

It has been reported that from 2007 to 2020, the Veterans Administration denied 78% of disability claims by veterans alleged to have been caused by exposure to burn pits.

The $300 billion PACT Act identifies the dates and times of service eligibility as well as a long list of conditions now presumed to be related to that service. Among them, asthma, brain cancer, kidney cancer, chronic bronchitis, hypertension, lymphoma, mealnoma, emphysema and reproductive cancer of any type.

Veterans Administration officials attending Tuesdays Town Hall meeting pointed out that the 2022 law includes many changes so all veterans, regardless of length of service, should contact their local VA office or Veterans Services Officer.

“Whether you were exposed to hazardous chemicals or not, they changed the eligibility that if you served in combat – so every World War II veteran, every veteran that was in Vietnam, every veteran in Korea, every veteran that was in the Gulf War, Iraq, Afghanistan – you’re now eligible to get care in the VA system just based on the fact that you served in combat,”  said David Stockwell, director of the Northern California VA Health System, adding that veterans are now signing up in record numbers.

Stockwell said the VA has seen double the number of new enrollees since the new law took effect. Of 1.7 million PACT Act claims, 1.4 million had been completed, resulting in $6.1 billion in retroactive benefits.

“Regardless of whether you think you’re eligible or not, you should absolutely apply for VA healthcare today,” said San Francisco VA Health System associate director Neil Gordon, also in attendance at Tuesday’s Town Hall. “If you’re already enrolled in VA healthcare, you should file a claim for benefits to see if you can get expanded coverage at no cost or additional benefits from the PACT Act.”

Thompson, a St. Helena resident and Vietnam War veteran, represents California’s 4th Congressional District, which includes all or part of Lake, Napa, Solano, Sonoma and Yolo counties.

The Democratic lawmaker said he has already held similar town halls in Sonoma and Solano counties, and plans to do the same in Lake and Yolo counties.

For more information on the PACT Act, click here or call 1-800-MyVA411 or 1-800-698-2411.

Locally, veterans can contact Dell Pratt, Napa County Veteran’s Service Officer, at (707) 253-4558.