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With thousands of local vets applying, VA extends deadline to file for PACT Act benefits

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Sgt. Robert B. Brown from Fayetteville, N.C. with Regimental Combat Team 6, Combat Camera Unit watches over the civilian Fire Fighters at the burn pit as smoke and flames rise into the night sky behind him on May 25th, 2007. Camp Fallujah has its own civilian run Fire Department to assist the Marines and Soldiers during a fire or emergency. Regimental Combat Team 6 is deployed with Multi National Forces-West in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom in the Al Anbar Province of Iraq to develop Iraqi Security Forces, facilitate the development of official rule of law through democratic reforms, and continue the development of a market based economy centered on Iraqi reconstruction. (Official USMC photograph by Cpl. Samuel D. Corum)(RELEASED)(RELEASED)

Jerry Zremski

The Buffalo News, N.Y.

Aug. 12—More than 1,100 veterans in the immediate Buffalo area have already applied for benefits under a year-old law that extends health and disability coverage to many Iraq and Afghanistan vets exposed to toxic burn pits, as well as Vietnam-era vets exposed to a poisonous defoliant.

But veterans advocates and federal lawmakers are urging other veterans to apply before a Monday deadline, lest they lose out on a full year’s worth of aid.

The application deadline had been last Wednesday, but the Department of Veterans Affairs extended the deadline to 11:59 p.m. ET on Monday after veterans complained of receiving error messages when trying to file online last week. Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, a New York Democrat who helped lead the fight to pass the bill expanding the veterans benefits, said the VA did the right thing in extending the deadline.

“These extra days mean that even more toxic-exposed vets have the opportunity to claim the benefits they deserve, and I encourage everyone eligible to apply,” Gillibrand said.

Veterans will still be able to apply after the Monday deadline, but if they do so, they will lose out on their chance at getting retroactive benefits covering the first full year since Congress passed the PACT Act. That legislation expands health and disability benefits to Gulf, Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans exposed to toxins released from wartime burn pits.

The largest expansion of veterans benefits in decades, the PACT Act means a great deal to veterans like Kevin Kozlowski of Rochester, a guest of Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer — a New York Democrat and another key backer of the legislation — at President Biden’s State of the Union address earlier this year.

“When I got back from Iraq, I started noticing my breathing was getting bad and soon my symptoms grew worse and included migraines and gastrointestinal issues,” Kozlowski said before Biden’s speech. “Finally, I was diagnosed with COPD and asthma and was told it’s due to burn pit exposure and the toxins that I was exposed to in Iraq.”

Kozlowski, an Army veteran, applied for and got PACT Act benefits and now helps other veterans to apply.

The new law also expands federal coverage for Vietnam-era vets exposed to Agent Orange. While the VA has long covered many health conditions linked to that deadly defoliant, the PACT Act expands coverage to those suffering from hypertension and other additional ailments.

Joe Pasek of the City of Tonawanda, who serves on the board of Chapter 77 of the Vietnam Veterans of America, urged veterans of his era to apply for benefits, and said he was glad that federal officials were doing the same.

“It’s great that the government and the VA is encouraging veterans to sign up because otherwise they would be paying for health care out of their own pockets,” Pasek said.

VA statistics show that as of July 15, 1,161 veterans from New York’s 26th Congressional District — which includes much of metro Buffalo — had already applied for benefits under the new law. In New York’s 23rd District, which stretches from Buffalo’s eastern and southern suburbs all the way to Chemung County, 1,705 veterans had applied. And in New York’s 24th District — which stretches from eastern Niagara County all the way to Watertown, excluding most of metro Rochester — 1,745 had applied.

Most of those veterans are likely to qualify for benefits, too.

Donna Mallia, director of the Buffalo office of the Veterans Benefits Administration, said that 79.6% of the PACT Act claims received locally and processed so far had been approved.

“Some veterans are worried that applying for PACT Act benefits will impact their current VA benefits, but the truth is that if a veteran files a claim, there is a 97% chance that their benefits will either increase or stay the same,” Mallia said.

Mallia said 2,858 veterans from New York’s 31 westernmost counties had already been approved for benefits under the PACT Act, with other applications still pending.

“Veterans have been waiting far too long for this,” said Mallia, who added: “We implore veterans to please apply for this benefit.”

Rep. Brian Higgins, a Buffalo Democrat who represents the 26th Congressional District, agreed.

“Veterans who bravely defended this nation, putting their lives and health on the line, have too often been made to jump through hoops to get the care and benefits they deserve,” Higgins said. “That changes with the PACT Act. Thanks to this common-sense law, thousands of Western New York veterans will be eligible to receive quality VA care. We encourage them to apply.”

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