(U.S. Senate) — During a Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee hearing today on implementation of the landmark Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act, Chairman Jon Tester pressed Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) officials on the Department’s ability to effectively manage an increased demand for veterans’ programs and services while rapidly bolstering its capacity to deliver quality care.
“I think this PACT Act is making a real difference—I hear it from folks all the time,” said Tester. “Folks like Travis from Missoula, Montana who deployed to Somalia, was diagnosed with Lymphoma, and because of the PACT Act, he…and his family are receiving benefits that he earned because of his service to this country. You guys have stepped up in a big, big way…that doesn’t mean we’re not going to be critical of you if you screw up.”
During the hearing, Tester pushed VA Under Secretary for Health Dr. Shereef Elnahal to provide an update on VA’s rural national hiring strategy—a workforce provision included in the PACT Act. Dr. Elnahal pledged that a report and guidance ordered by the PACT Act on rural hiring strategy will come out in the fall and will have input from VA networks that serve rural areas.
The Senator also questioned Elnahal on VA’s ongoing comprehensive review of the VA Montana Health Care System, which VA announced last week.
Tester said, “I think you saw some of the concerns when you were out and visited Montana last December. So, what can veterans and VA employees in Montana expect as this comprehensive review gets underway?”
“We are working our hardest to make sure that care is the highest quality possible,” replied Elnahal. “The issues that have surfaced…were not issues I could sit on. So I’ve worked with the Network Director over VISN-19 to ensure that two very talented senior executives in our system came into the facility, diagnosed all the issues, and began the process to address them systematically...That’s what the veterans in Montana deserve, and I know you equally care for that facility to get on the right path.”
As Chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, Tester fought tirelessly for years alongside veterans and Veterans Service Organizations to deliver generations of toxic-exposed veterans and survivors their earned care and benefits under the PACT Act. Named after Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson who died in 2020 from toxic exposure as a result of his military service, this law provides health care for Post-9/11 combat veterans, creates a framework for the establishment of future presumptions of service connection related to toxic exposure, expands VA’s list of health conditions presumed to be caused by toxic exposures, and improves resources to support claims processing.
Since being signed into law last August, VA has received more than 744,000 PACT Act-related claims, including nearly 4,000 from Montana. More than 103,000 veterans with PACT Act-related eligibility have also enrolled in VA health care since October 1, 2022, including more than 1,600 Montana veterans.