Toxic Exposure: An Expansion of VA Benefits

with Katie Purswell of the American Legion

Exposure to burn pits during military service has been associated with health problems, including respiratory and cardiovascular conditions.

Katie Purswell, Director of Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation with the American Legion, joins host Tetiana Anderson to discuss the PACT Act — legislation recently signed into law that expands the eligibility of veteran benefits to those who have served in areas of known toxic exposure.

Posted on:

Oct 31, 2022

Hosted by: Tetiana Anderson
Produced by: National Newsmakers Team

Anderson: In May of 2020, Ohio National Guardsman Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson passed away after battling a rare autoimmune disorder and stage 4 lung cancer. He'd been exposed to toxins from burn pits during his military service. Two years later, bipartisan legislation named in his honor was signed into law, expanding eligibility for VA benefits to those exposed to burn pits and other toxic substances. Hello, and welcome to "Comcast Newsmakers." I'm Tetiana Anderson. The Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our Pact Act expands benefits and services to millions of veterans who served in areas of known toxic exposure. Here to discuss what is known as the PACT Act and support for those trying to access the new benefits is Katie Purswell. She is the director of Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation for the American Legion. Katie is also a veteran. Thank you for your service and thank you for being here.

Purswell: Thank you for having me.

Anderson: So when we're talking about Sergeant First Class Robinson, we know what his health problems were, but what other sorts of health issues are we talking about related to toxic exposure?

Purswell: We've been seeing a lot of veterans that are suffering with rare cancers and autoimmune diseases. But more commonly, we're seeing a lot of veterans that are having issues with rhinitis, sinusitis, chronic bronchitis, any type of respiratory illness that seems to be reoccurring and long-lasting.

Anderson: And where are these health problems stemming from? I mean, what contributes to these toxins that are being exposed?

Purswell: So just like in Vietnam, when there was Agent Orange that was in the air that all of the -- all of our veterans were breathing in, the post-9/11 were breathing in burn pits, were breathing in burning medical waste, paper, human waste. There's lots of different things that contribute to the burn pits. Anything that we can't bring back with us has to be destroyed. And that is the method for destroying. And then we breathe all that in as we live around these burn pits.

Anderson: And that leads to what we've been seeing. Along those lines, there's a claims process, right, for people who are experiencing trouble?

Purswell: Correct. There is a claims process. So since the signing of the PACT Act, we encourage all veterans to go out to an accredited organization to file their claim. The American Legion is one of these organizations that can file these claims. We do not charge any fee to the veteran for filing these fees. They can also go to veteransaffairs.gov, va.gov, and file these claims, as well.

Anderson: And explain to our viewers how this new act really erases a burden of proof for the veterans.

Purswell: The wonderful thing about the PACT Act is that veterans, like you said, no longer have to show proof that they are ill and that it's connected to their service. If they served in these areas where known toxic exposure was found and they have those conditions, it is presumed that they received it from their service and they are automatically granted that claim.

Anderson: So all of this is certainly great progress. But I know that the American Legion does have some concerns when it comes to predators, perhaps, targeting these veterans. Talk to us about that.

Purswell: There's been a pretty big increase in predatory claims companies. These companies are unaccredited law firms, typically, that charge exorbitant fees to these veterans in order to file their claims. Now, VA only accepts accredited organizations' claims. So there are rules that are governed by Congress and by VA. The American Legion and other veteran service organizations do fall under these accredited guidelines. The predatory claims companies are not accredited. They don't follow the rules, and they can charge veterans exorbitant amounts of money, which is money that the veteran has earned and rightfully deserves.

Anderson: I know a lot of people are gonna want to know more about this, Katie. What's your website? Where can they get more information?

Purswell: Legion.org is a great place to go. You can find a department service officer or a local service officer that will help you file your claim. We are always teaching new accredited -- accredited representatives through our own programs. And if the Legion isn't your cup of tea, then va.gov will also be able to help you.

Anderson: Katie Purswell from the American Legion, thank you for being here.

Purswell: Thank you for having me.

Anderson: And thanks to our viewers, as well, for watching. As always, for more great conversations with leaders in your own community and across the nation, visit comcastnewsmakers.com. I'm Tetiana Anderson.

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