NEW JERSEY – U.S. Senator Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) joined with the Under Secretary of the VA for Health, Dr. Shereef Elnahal, this week to tour the East Orange Veterans Affairs Medical Center and discuss the recently enacted Sergeant First Class Health Robinson Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act, which expands essential VA benefits to cover more than 3.5 million toxic-exposed veterans and includes the Senator’s provision to improve benefits and care for veterans who served in the Gulf War and other wars in the region.
“Before the PACT Act, veterans were forced to fill out a separate questionnaire for each symptom only for adjudicators to order them labs and exams that failed to connect multiple symptoms to one illness. As a result, claims for Gulf War illness took longer to diagnose and veterans affected by this were denied more often than other service-related disabilities,” Menendez said. “And despite studies showing that Afghanistan and Iraq vets suffered from similar conditions — for some reason, only those who served in Iraq were eligible for presumptive benefits. This kind of bureaucratic nightmare is exactly why I pushed to successfully include my bill, the Improving Benefits for Gulf War Veterans Act, into the final bill signed into law.”
The landmark bipartisan legislation discussed is named after Sergeant First Class Health Robinson, who died in 2020 from toxic exposure as a result of his military service in Kosovo and Iraq. The PACT Act reformed VA benefits and health care for veterans who were exposed to toxic substances during their service.
The Senator secured the inclusion of the Improving Benefits for Gulf War Veterans Act when President Biden signed the PACT Act into law. This expanded the VA health care eligibility to include Persian Gulf War veterans.
Specifically, the Senator’s Improving Benefits for Gulf War Veterans Act:
- Permanently extended the period of eligibility for benefits;
- This ensured veterans whose symptoms did not manifest until later in life received the benefits they earned.
- Expanded veteran eligibility for VA benefits;
- This made veterans who served in Afghanistan, Israel, Egypt, Turkey, Syria and Jordan eligible for benefits, and lowered the eligibility threshold to zero percent, allowing more veterans to receive disability compensation and other benefits.
- Improved training for VA staff;
- This required the VA to ensure department personnel are appropriately trained in dealing with Gulf War Illness claims and to report to Congress annually on actions taken.
- Created a single, uniform disability-based questionnaire (DBQ)
- This required the VA to develop a single DBQ for the Gulf War Illness, to facilitate more timely accurate consideration of disability compensation.
Sen. Menendez has long been a strong advocate for providing better health care and benefits for our veterans across the country. In June, Sen. Menendez joined Senate colleagues in introducing the Improving Whole Health for Veterans with Chronic Conditions Act, legislation that would establish a new pilot program to provide comprehensive dental care to veterans with diabetes and ischemic heart disease.
In May, Sens. Menendez and Booker, along with U.S. Representatives Lauren Underwood (D-Ill.-14) and Alma Adams (D-N.C.-12) reintroduced the bicameral Black Maternal Health Momnibus Act, historic legislation to save the lives of pregnant women and mothers, and increased funding for programs to improve maternal health care for veterans.
In March, the Senator Menendez introduced legislation to ensure U.S. veterans can access education benefits they have earned. The legislation would require the VA to update its technology to pay GI Bill benefits for veterans taking approved coursework while attending educational institutions and universities abroad that lack an Employee Identification Number (EIN) or U.S. bank account.