This story has been updated.
Amy Antioho knows from personal experience what it is like to have a family member who served in the military get medical claims denied. After two rejections, her husband Peter, who was exposed to burn pits while serving in Afghanistan, finally got his disability benefits approved in 2019.
Antioho lives in Berlin with her almost 8-year-old son. While she was trying to get approval from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, she was also raising her son and taking care of her husband, who was receiving treatment for brain cancer. She described it as a “juggling act.” She said he outlived his prognosis by two years and died in 2020, a year after the VA approved his claim.
Now, she feels hopeful that other military families will not have to navigate the same drawn-out process of filing claims because of a new federal law. The Honoring Our PACT Act removes the burden placed on veterans to prove certain illnesses are tied to their service and now establishes a presumption of service connection for almost two dozen medical conditions.
“With this PACT Act and these presumptive conditions, people won’t have to have that extra fight,” Antioho said. “They’re fighting for their lives, but to also have to be told by the government that you fought to protect and serve, ‘Well you might be sick, but you have to prove it’ is really insulting.”
“My hope is that at least one more family doesn’t have to go through what we went through,” she said.
Congress approved the PACT Act a year ago after a years-long fight by advocacy groups and lawmakers to streamline the process for those who served and their families. Antioho attended the White House signing ceremony last year and said she reconnected with U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who had helped her family with the claim after it was rejected twice.
With proper documentation of service and their medical conditions, veterans are able to file claims with the VA under the PACT Act at any time. But they need to apply or submit an intent to file by Monday to receive retroactive benefits. VA Sec. Denis McDonough announced the deadline was extended by several more days until end of the day on Aug. 14.
If approved, they would receive compensation that goes back to Aug. 10, 2022.
The law expands eligibility to receive health care and benefits from the VA for veterans who served in Vietnam, the Gulf War and post-9/11 wars and were exposed to toxic substances. Many who served on bases in Afghanistan and Iraq were exposed to burn pits where the military disposed of trash and other waste.
Because of those exposures, the law establishes 23 presumptive illnesses and conditions as well as a list of locations and bases where members served in those various wars.
Advocates like Antioho and groups in Connecticut are encouraging veterans to sign up for benefits, especially before the Aug. 9 deadline.
Alison Weir, executive director of the Connecticut Veterans Legal Center, is also urging veterans whose claims have previously been denied or those who have experienced issues with the VA to still sign up for benefits.
“It’s been a long fight getting the VA to recognize that service connection is more than just a dislocated arm or something of a direct wound from combat,” Weir said. “It can be environmental.”
“The big thing we want to make sure people know too is [there are] a lot of people denied in the past who should still refile,” she added.
Thousands of veterans in Connecticut and across the U.S. have already sought benefits.
To date, more than 408,000 claims of veterans and surviving family members were completed, according to the VA. About 85% of them have been approved. Claims were completed in an average of about five months.
In Connecticut, there have been over 4,700 claims filed by veterans under the PACT Act, with more than 2,100 approved so far. And since it was signed into law last August, almost 2,200 people have enrolled in health care from the VA.
As she helps educate people on the parameters of the new law, Antioho, who serves on the board of directors for the CT Veterans Legal Center, said she tries to relay to veterans she meets that they are deserving of the benefits expansion.
“Peter had a lot of reservations about applying for benefits. He didn’t feel like he deserved them. He didn’t feel like he earned them,” Antioho said. “It’s really unfortunate there’s a stigma for asking for help.”
While the PACT Act expands access to care, veterans groups are still looking for answers from the U.S. Department of Defense about what exactly service members were exposed to while they served.
Groups like Yale Law School’s Veterans Legal Services Clinic and the CT Veterans Legal Center, along with Stronghold Freedom Foundation, filed a lawsuit in April against the Pentagon in U.S. District Court in Connecticut.
“For many who were sickened, this missing information frustrates their ability to obtain accurate medical diagnoses and adequate treatment plans,” the complaint reads. “Healthy veterans, meanwhile, fear the unknown, and seek to take proactive steps to monitor their health and limit potential risks.”
The complaint seeks more answers from the agency through a Freedom of Information Act request about the conditions at the Karshi-Khanabad Air Base (K2) in Uzbekistan. Thousands of service members served there when fighting in Afghanistan between 2001 and 2005. But the Defense Department has continued to deny their requests.
“Until the DOD tells us what people were exposed to, it’s really hard for people to know what conditions might arise,” Weir said, “or whether a condition they have they thought was something they got in civilian life but actually be traced to something they saw when they were on the K2 base.”
The Connecticut Mirror/Connecticut Public Radio federal policy reporter position is made possible, in part, by funding from the Robert and Margaret Patricelli Family Foundation and Engage CT.