By DENIS MCDONOUGH
Nichole Coleman, thanks for that kind introduction, and thanks for inviting me to join you. I know this is your last conference as President of NACVSO. Thank you for all your great work this last year. Your legacy of service—to your fellow Vets, to your community back home in Findlay, and to your country—will continue for many years to come. Meanwhile, though, we have all been strengthened by your work as President.
Chris Hinton, welcome into the new role. You have a big job ahead of you to fill Nichole’s shoes, but you are the exact right person to do it. I also want to point out that while we are in Cheeseland today, NACVSO has elected a Minnesotan to lead this great organization into its next chapter.
Speaking of Minnesotans, I wanted to congratulate Mike McLaughlin for receiving the Distinguished CVSO Award this past Sunday. A post-9/11 Marine whose father—also a Marine Vet— was a Purple Heart recipient and an amputee from the Vietnam War, Mike grew up immersed in Veteran advocacy. And he’s made serving Vets his calling. The Vets in Blue Earth County, NACVSO, and all of us at VA are lucky to have you.
Last, but certainly not least, an immense thanks to Doug LeValley. Doug served 20 years in the Air Force, 22 years as a county VSO in Clark County, Ohio, and attended the very first NACVSO executive committee meeting over 32 years ago. Since then, Doug has trained thousands of NACVSO members to become advocates in your home counties, impacting millions of Veterans. After nearly six decades of service to our country, Doug is retiring from NACVSO this year. Doug, at the center of it all you have been steadfast in serving others—especially your brothers- and sisters-in-arms. Thank you.
Now, I’ll be brief in my remarks here, because I want to hear from you, and learn from you, about how VA can improve, how we can continue to strengthen our partnership, how we can keep working together to serve Vets as well as they—and many of you—have served this country.
When I spoke to you last year, I talked about the promise our country makes to honor their service and sacrifice. Well, with the help of partners like you, we’re fighting like hell to keep that promise in so many ways. We’re providing world-class care to Veterans. We’re delivering timely access to the benefits that Veterans have earned—including toxic exposure benefits, educational benefits, survivor benefits, home loans, life insurance, and so much more. And we’re giving Veterans the dignified, lasting resting places that honor their service and sacrifices.
We can’t do that great work without your help. Here’s why. One of our top priorities is getting more Veterans into our care. There are about 9 million Vets enrolled in VA care right now—but there are about 19 million Veterans in America. Among the Vets who do receive their care from VA, approximately 90% trust VA to deliver their care. And we need to build more trust with women Vets, whose trust score is near 86%, and significantly improve trust with our younger, post-9/11 Vets. Across the board, the younger the Veterans, the less they trust us. So, we need to build that trust. We need to reach those folks and bring them into our care, because Vets in VA care do better. And that’s where you can really make a difference.
There’s a Veteran named Terry Schmidt who lives about 2 hours from here, in De Soto, Wisconsin. Terry served in the Navy in the 80s, where he was exposed to asbestos and other toxic chemicals, and he developed respiratory conditions as a result. Now, Terry struggled with these health issues for years but never considered signing up for VA care.
He didn’t think he qualified. That was until he learned about the PACT Act, and subsequently met with Laura Moore, the Crawford County VSO. He especially appreciated that she kept her office open, despite a recent snowstorm, so that he could meet with her in-person. Like so many Vets, his military service and subsequent health issues were personal, and he didn’t want to talk about them across computer screens or over the phone. After meeting with Laura, Terry got started on filing his PACT Act claim right away.
Those PACT Act benefits can change a Veteran’s life for the better. It can mean financial stability, co-payment relief, transportation benefits, and much more. Most importantly, it means providing Veterans like Terry with the care they need, and so richly deserve. He says, “I finally feel like someone is on my side, and that feels amazing … [Laura has] made such a huge difference in my life, and I will never be able to thank [her] enough.”
And that right there, that’s keeping the promise. It’s exactly what your work is all about.
It looks like Laura—it looks like all of you—keeping your doors open to Vets in the moments where they need someone the most. You are the link in the chain serving the millions of Vets who have served our nation. You’ve earned the trust of Vets in the community. That kind of trust can make all the difference in the world; for that, and your partnership, I am eternally grateful.
Now, that brings me to what I want to focus on in my remarks today—the PACT Act, the toxic exposure law President Biden signed a couple months after I spoke to you last year.
If we all do our jobs right, that new law can be the largest expansion of VA health care and benefits in VA’s history. It can help us deliver care and benefits to millions of toxic-exposed Vets and their survivors, bring generations of new Vets into VA health care, and increase the health care benefits of many more—including many of you here, today.
I see this new law as an opportunity for VA to try to start a new relationship with Vets, families, caregivers, and survivors. I see it as an invitation to build a new relationship with VA, an invitation for a homecoming, especially for Vets who may have tried VA in the past but didn’t feel welcome, didn’t feel heard, didn’t feel seen. We owe every Veteran so much more than that.
Veterans like Yvonne Pouliot, an Army Veteran who was exposed to burn pits during the Gulf War. After being honorably discharged, Yvonne spent five years fighting for care and benefits related to her toxic exposure before being denied. That was until recently, when she learned about the PACT Act during a community outreach event in Utah.
She filed a claim, and her claim was quickly approved. For Yvonne, the feeling was bittersweet. Her father, Rafael Rodríguez Vazquez, was exposed to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. He died from prostate cancer, a newly presumptive condition, before the PACT Act was passed. Yvonne encourages other Veterans—Vietnam Vets like her dad, and her fellow Vets from the wars in Central Command—to apply for benefits, even if they were previously denied. In her words, toxic exposure benefits are “not a privilege. [Veterans] fought for it. It’s their right to have it and receive it.”
Now, we’re hearing from many Vets like Terry and Yvonne who’ve shared similar stories since we’ve implemented the PACT Act. As I said, the PACT Act can end up being one of the biggest expansions of Veteran benefits in history. It can be, but we need more Vets to apply. So we need your help, your trust with Vets, and your voice.
That is why—leading up to the first anniversary of the PACT Act—VA will soon kick off a nationwide outreach initiative called the “PACT Act Summer VetFest.” We will work closely with County Veteran Service Officers, Congressional partners, Veterans Service Organizations, community leaders, private sector and non-profit organizations, and VA employees to plan and host events across the country to get as many Vets as possible to sign up. More information will be coming soon about these events, but we look forward to spending time with all of you throughout the summer.
The bottom line is this—we will not rest, we will leave no stone unturned, until every Veteran gets access to equitable, world-class care and benefits.
So, five quick points to cover with Vets in your counties.
First, we want Vietnam Vets and Vets who fought over the last thirty years of war to apply for their toxic exposure benefits right now. Don’t wait. Apply today—and re-apply if they’ve been denied before—for the VA care and benefits they’ve earned. And listen, there is no deadline to apply. But applying for benefits or submitting an “Intent to File” on or before August 9th of this year means benefits will be backdated to August 10th of last year, the day President Biden signed the bill into law. This means we’ll pay Vets the amount they would have received from August 9th, 2022, to the date we grant your application.
Second, anyone who is already enrolled in VA health care should get a toxic exposure screening at their VA medical center. It’s quick. It’s easy. And over 3 million Vets already have. And if a Vet is not enrolled in VA health care, please, get them enrolled.
Third, some Vets worry that applying for toxic exposure benefits will impact their current benefits. The truth is that with the PACT Act, they’re 32 times more likely to have their benefits increase—or stay the same—than to see a decrease.
Fourth, there are people out there who’ll try to convince Vets they need to pay somebody or use a lawyer to apply for their VA benefits. Not true. As you know, it’s free and easy to apply by working with the VA, a VSO, or any one of you in this room. This means you all are going to be very busy this summer. But that is good news, because it means we will finally get these Vets timely access to the world-class care they need and the benefits they have earned.
And fifth, everybody can learn more and apply anytime by visiting VA.gov/PACT or calling 1-800-MY-VA-411.
One more point, and then I’ll kick it back to Nichole to open up the floor for discussion.
VA is delivering more care and more benefits to more Vets than at any other time in our nation’s history. And we did that in the midst of a historic public health emergency. From the moment the pandemic hit, VA’s public servants, and all of you mobilized around one core mission: saving and improving the lives of Veterans, their families, caregivers, and survivors during this time of need.
With the help of NACVSO, VA accomplished the following over the last year alone:
All of which is to say, the pandemic has proven time and again the kind of exceptional leaders you are: leaders our Veterans and our country needs, right now, more than ever before. This pandemic’s coming to an end, God willing, but our work, together, will continue for decades to come. Our mission is far from over and many challenges lie ahead. But I know that with you leading the way, VA will always continue serving Veterans every bit as well as they have served us. So, Nichole, everyone, thanks. It’s an honor to work with you in serving Veterans, their families, caregivers, and survivors. I look forward to our conversation, and to working with you to deliver for Vets. With that, Nichole, do you want to open it up?
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