What the care access of the PACT Act has meant for one Utah veteran
Yvonne Pouliot was in the army for 10 years, serving in Germany and the Gulf War.
During this time she was exposed to burn pits — places where military waste is gathered and incinerated using jet fuel. The toxic smoke from pits has been linked to respiratory conditions and certain cancers.
“The understanding is, that is the lesser of two evils because you don’t have this waste that could produce illnesses,” Pouliot said.
When Pouliot was discharged, she began her claim process for health care.
“That process back then took about five years,” she said.
But since the passage of the PACT Act last August (both Utah Sens. Mike Lee and Mitt Romney voted no), things have changed for the better.
The act is officially called the Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act – and its goal, like in its name, is to honor a promise to give veterans the care they deserve.
Health care eligibility for veterans was essentially expanded. Those who served in Vietnam, the Gulf War and the post-9/11 era can more easily get coverage. One of the most significant changes is that it adds more than 20 “presumptive” burn pit conditions and exposure locations. If a veteran was in a certain location and time during their service, they automatically get coverage.
Based on Pouliot’s location and time of service, she is presumed to have been exposed to burn pits and doesn’t have to go through a long process to prove it. So if she has any conditions covered, which includes many types of cancer and chronic bronchitis, it is assumed they were caused by exposure.
Pouliot went to an outreach event in December. Now almost two months later, she has already had all three of her compensation exams, which the act requires.
“That, for me, is unheard of in a government organization. That swiftness and promptness, the quality of the doctors that do the exams is phenomenal,” she said.
Amy Waite, a Utah PACT Act program coordinator and Air Force veteran, said the event Pouliot went to hosted enrollments and toxic exposure screenings. It’s a short questionnaire to document if someone believes they had an exposure. This helps with what Waite calls “exposure-informed care” and can help veterans see a provider.
So far, 6,714 veterans have been screened. Waite said all veterans, regardless of status, should participate in the free screening. Another outreach event will be hosted in March in Price, Utah.
Another significant aspect of the PACT Act is the addition of more presumptive conditions for Agent Orange, a tactical herbicide used to control vegetation during the Vietnam war. The toxin got its name from an orange band around the barrel it was stored in.
Pouliot said Vietnam veterans are the reason the PACT Act exists and why she is getting care now.
“The shout-out goes to the Vietnam veterans because they’re the ones that spearheaded this whole health care movement,” she said. “They were probably the first that were severely neglected when they returned.”
Pouliot’s father, Rafael Rodríguez Vazquez, is a Vietnam veteran who would have benefitted from the act. He died from prostate cancer, which is a presumptive condition from Agent Orange.
Heath Robinson, who the act is named after, died in 2020 from toxic exposure caused by his military service.
Pouliot encourages other veterans to apply for benefits, even if they were previously denied.
“It’s not a privilege. They fought for it. It’s their right to have it and receive it.”