This article originally appeared on The National Desk
(TND) — The PACT Act has been called the most significant expansion of veterans' health care in 30 years, and the head of one advocacy group says implementing this "massive piece of legislation" will be among veterans' top concerns this coming year.
The PACT Act, which President Joe Biden signed into law this summer, will help veterans exposed to burn pits and other toxins during their service who are now suffering significant health problems, including cancers.
“I think implementation in the next Congress is going to be a huge issue, particularly when it comes to oversight on those claims and appeals backlogs and things like that,” said Cole Lyle, a former Marine and the executive director of advocacy group Mission Roll Call.
Funding isn’t an issue, with the VA’s roughly $300 billion budget this fiscal year, Lyle said.
But the VA faces challenges in staffing up and processing an influx of claims.
There are already about 165,000 PACT Act claims. Plus, Lyle said the VA’s general backlog of disability claims sits at about 151,000 and it's expected to rise through the spring.
One of Mission Roll Call’s top priorities is helping veterans access the care and benefits they earned.
Another is suicide prevention.
These are not mutually exclusive issues.
“As you know, suicide is a complex issue that can be caused by any number of things, and usually a conglomeration of a bunch of different factors,” Lyle said. “One of those factors is access to health care and benefits from service-related injuries or illnesses.”
Mission Roll Call polls veterans, amplifies their voices and informs policymakers.
Lyle said Congress plays a crucial role, holding the purse strings and influencing the successful implantation of laws, such as the PACT Act, affecting veterans.
Inflation is a concern, especially for disabled veterans on fixed incomes. And Lyle said the VA has run into difficulties managing electronic health records.
“I think it's going to be an ongoing issue,” Lyle said of the electronic health records and the difficulties of merging different systems for active duty troops and veterans.
But stopping veteran suicide is Mission Roll Call’s top priority, Lyle said.
Suicide affects veterans at a higher rate than the general population, and Lyle believes Congress and the VA can do more for suicide prevention outreach.
Lyle said the suicide prevention outreach portion of the VA’s roughly $300 billion budget is one-tenth of 1%.
“And I've been out there arguing that we need to fundamentally change how we look at suicide prevention, because the VA and many people in Congress will say that mental health is how you tackle the suicide crisis, and I don't think we're going to counsel our way out of this issue,” he said.
One of Mission Roll Call’s polls found 88% of veterans are dissatisfied with mental health treatment through the VA.
Lyle advocates for more funding to empower suicide prevention coordinators to work with local organizations with touchpoints to veterans in their communities, which can increase peer-to-peer engagement.
“So, our focus is going to be on expanding VA's outreach to the 50% of veterans that do not use VA. Increasing funding for suicide prevention outreach for community grants that go directly to organizations that touch veterans, that the VA will never touch, and then any number of different policy issues that could increase the quality of life for veterans across the country, and hopefully reduce the epidemic of veteran suicide,” Lyle said.
He urged veterans who may be struggling to reach out for help, whether it be the Veterans Crisis Line or a local veteran service organization.
“Going into this holiday season if you're struggling, you're not in this alone,” Lyle said.