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VA to expand health coverage for veterans exposed to toxic materials

Las Vegas Sun - 2/28/2024

Feb. 28—The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs is expanding its coverage of veterans exposed to toxins and hazardous materials, the department announced Monday.

The expansion, which takes effect March 5, will allow all veterans who were exposed to hazardous materials to enroll directly into VA health care, according to a VA press release. Veterans that were exposed to toxins in the United States or during training will also be eligible. The expansion will give more veterans the opportunity to be screened for ill effects of hazardous exposure, which was previously relegated to soldiers who served at certain times or places.

"If you're a Veteran who may have been exposed to toxins or hazards while serving our country, at home or abroad, we want you to come to us for the health care you deserve," VA Secretary Denis McDonough said in the press release.

The change phases out certain elements of the previously created Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act, which initially increased health care access for veterans, including more toxic exposure screenings and care. Veterans will not need to apply for VA disability compensation benefits to be eligible for VA health care, according to the release.

The VA Southern Nevada Healthcare System leads the nation in toxic screenings for veterans, said Matthew Boles, environmental health registry coordinator. The VA Southern Nevada Healthcare System serve over 71,000 veterans, and almost 45,000 have gone through toxic screenings. Officials like Boles are concerned about the potentially "overwhelming" number of veterans causing longer wait times for care.

"Right now, we will screen everybody," Boles said. "After this March 5, [there's] going to be a lot more people going to be eligible for certain things now. And for us and what we do with our registry, we're already out until all the way till April in person."

Boles said any veteran who may have been exposed to any kind of hazardous material should also sign up for toxic screening registries, if it applies to them. Applying for the registry allows veterans to go through free health screenings and help researchers better understand the long-term effects of exposure.

There are six current registries for different kinds of exposure: Agent Orange Registry, Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry, Gulf War Registry, Ionizing Radiation Registry, Depleted Uranium Follow-Up Program and the Toxic Embedded Fragment Surveillance Center.

While many VA centers around the country do one or two of the registries, the one in Southern Nevada does all six, Boles said. Boles leads classes for veterans about the different registries they may be eligible for and said most of his classes usually have between 50 and 100 attendees. Over 1200 people have signed into the registry in the past two months, Boles said.

Veterans do not have to sign up for registries to be eligible for the expanded health care options, according to the press release.


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