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Veterans Affairs Dept braces for hundreds of thousands of claims related to toxic exposure illnesses

Andrew Walker, 72, a retired Marine who served in Vietnam in 1969 and was exposed to Agent Orange, is among the millions of veterans suffering from toxic exposure illnesses now eligible to receive care and benefits, thanks to the PACT Act (short for Honoring our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act). 

Veterans who served in the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, or the post-9/11 wars and have toxic exposure-related illnesses, including various cancers, can now apply for benefits and care.

FILE: Marine Andrew Walker, now retired, in Japan soon after serving in Vietnam Photo provided by Andrew Walker

Walker suffers from coronary artery disease and hypertension, a condition the PACT Act added to the list of conditions the VA covers. He filed his PACT Act claim online in October, and since then, he has undergone two medical examinations — an electrocardiogram and chest X-rays. 

In January, the Veterans Affairs Department will start processing all benefits claims related to the PACT Act. The VA has already started processing claims from terminally ill veterans and has said it will expedite processing claims filed by veterans with cancer so they can receive care and benefits quickly. 

Walker's claim will be one of the thousands the VA begins to review in January. 

Because the law expands eligibility to an estimated 3.5 million more veterans, the VA has hired more than 2,000 employees to help administer benefits and plans to hire more in the coming months. 

"Now as more veterans and survivors apply for their PACT Act benefits, we do expect an increase to the inventory and the backlog in the short term," Joshua Jacobs, a senior official from the VA, told members of Congress during testimony on Capitol Hill this month. 

Claims that the VA has been processing for over 125 days are considered to be in backlog — there are close to 160,000, which is a substantial reduction from the 600,000 that were stalled in the system in 2013. 

"I was at the VA ten years ago when the backlog was at its peak and I'm happy to say that today we're in a better position to tackle these challenges," Jacobs said. 

Since the PACT Act was signed into law in August, more than 176,000 veterans have applied for related benefits. The VA anticipates that number will grow as more veterans learn they're eligible. 

To spread the word to veterans and their families, the VA launched a "PACT Act Week of Action" running from Dec. 10-17. Over the course of the week, VA facilities across the country are hosting more than 90 in-person events to discuss eligibility and how to file claims.

"We take it as our primary responsibility to inform veterans from every demographic, every region in the country, and throughout our territories that this option, these new benefits are available to them," VA Under Secretary for Health Shereef Elnahal said in recent testimony on Capitol Hill. 

"That responsibility falls on us at VA," Elnahal said. 

Some veterans and veterans service organizations worry about the VA's capacity to handle the expected influx of claims. 

"My biggest concern is that the VA ensures that they have the technical know-how and expertise to execute on this," said Army veteran Naveed Shah, who is also the political director for Common Defense, a grassroots organization of progressive veterans. 

"I'm not saying that they can't do it at all," Shah told CBS News. "It's just we want this to go smoothly, and we just know that in the past, the VA has had issues with processing claims." 

The VA is still confident that it can handle any uptick in cases, though. A spokesperson for the VA said the department has not issued any requests for information to outside companies for help processing PACT Act-related claims online at

"We believe we are in a great position to deliver timely access to benefits, even in anticipation of an increase of PACT Act-related claims," Veterans Affairs press secretary Terrence Hayes said in an email.

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