On June 7, 2022, the Dr. Kate Hendricks Thomas Supporting Expanded Review for Veterans in Combat Environments (SERVICE) Act was signed into law by President Biden. Known today as the 2023 SERVICE Act, it mandates that the VA give mammograms to women who may have been exposed to toxic substances from burn pits or other sources.
It’s crucial to stay informed about all the initiatives and amendments to existing laws to ensure that you receive all the benefits you rightfully deserve from your years of service.
We’ll cover the background, main provisions of the new law, and its implementation to help you understand how it can make a positive difference.
Who is Dr. Katherine Hendricks Thomas?
United States Marine Corps Captain Katherine Hendricks Thomas earned her Ph.D. in Health Promotion and Health Education and was an assistant professor at Charleston Southern University.
In 2005, Thomas was deployed to Fallujah, Iraq where she served as a military police officer. During this period of service, she was exposed to smoke from burn pits located on the base.
Burn pits are large areas where tons of waste products (including trash, plastics, wood, metal, paints, solvents, munitions, and medical and human waste) are burned in the open air. Such pits were commonly used in US military bases in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other overseas locations as a fast, cheap, and seemingly low-impact way to dispose of waste.
In 2018, Katherine Hendricks Thomas was diagnosed with stage IV breast cancer. Unfortunately, after 4 years she lost her courageous battle with the disease and died on April 5, 2022 at the age of 42.
What is the Connection of Burn Pits to Toxic Fumes?
Some substances and materials in burn pits, especially plastics, rubber, chemical mixtures, and medical waste, tend to produce dangerous toxic smoke when burned. Regular exposure to these toxic substances and fumes may result in various diseases and serious health conditions that develop much later.
Dr. Thomas was a fierce advocate for Veterans and active military personnel who suffered from exposure to burn pits. Overall, the Department of Defense calculates that over 3.5 million Veterans could have suffered from such exposure.
Although there is no official confirmation of a direct link between exposure to burn pits and resulting health complications, the story of Captain Katherine Hendricks Thomas is only one example in a daunting chain of tragic cases among Veterans suffering long-term consequences, and in worse cases, death.
The VA’s Response to Health Issues Likely Caused by Toxic Fumes
Since mid-2010’s, the use of such burn pits in US military bases has been reduced. The VA continues to support research in this area and examine new data in order to minimize the health risks for the US military personnel and provide Veterans with adequate support and benefits in the future.
According to VA Secretary Denis McDonough, the 2023 SERVICE Act is not only meant to honor Dr. Kate Hendricks Thomas and her legacy, but also to eventually provide a state-of-the-art healthcare service to all eligible Veterans, whose service may have exposed them to life-threatening toxins, which may lead to the development of breast cancer.
SERVICE Act and MAMMO Act – What’s the Difference?
The SERVICE Act was not the only bill signed by President Biden on July 7, 2022. Making Advances in Mammography and Medical Options (MAMMO Act) was another initiative meant to provide Veterans with the necessary preventative services to address breast cancer.
MAMMO Act is focused mainly on providing Veterans, especially those who live in remote rural areas or those who suffer from paralysis, spinal cord injuries, or other disorders, access to breast cancer screening and mammography screening.
Under the MAMMO Act, the VA is also planning to promote and develop a Tele-screening Mammography Pilot within the Telehealth project.
The SERVICE Act, however, was designed precisely to expand breast cancer risk assessments and clinically deliver mammograms to women Veterans who have experienced toxic exposure. To this end, the Dr. Kate Hendricks Thomas Supporting Expanded Review resonates with the Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act, which provides expansion of benefits and services for toxic-exposed Veterans.
What to Know About the SERVICE Act
Let’s examine the SERVICE Act and its implementation more carefully to help you understand whether you are eligible for the benefits it provides and how you can secure your right to receive those benefits.
Who is eligible?
The SERVICE Act expands eligibility for breast cancer risk assessment and mammography screening for certain Veterans who served in specific locations and periods.
For example, if you served in Afghanistan, Syria, Jordan, or Egypt starting September 11, 2001, and ending on such date as the Secretary determines burn pits are no longer used in deployed areas, you are among eligible Veterans. It is important to note that the list of locations and time specifications are quite broad and at the same time crucial to determine your eligibility.
Clinical symptoms, risk factors, and a family history of breast cancer also increase your eligibility.
It is important to note that the SERVICE Act will also cover mammography screening and breast cancer risk assessment for transgender men who have breasts, as well as transgender women who have been on hormone therapy for over 5 years. Biological male Veterans without symptoms will not be screened, but they become eligible if they develop breast symptoms.
In the event a VA clinician decides to deny you the mammogram and other related diagnostic procedures, and you believe that you are eligible for them under the SERVICE Act, you can appeal through the VA’s Clinical Appeals processes.
What Does the SERVICE Act Provide?
The SERVICE Act is focused on providing breast cancer risk assessments and mammography screenings to help Veterans exposed to toxins from burn pits, diagnose breast cancer in early stages, and therefore increase chances of successful treatment and survival.
In accordance with the law, all the screening procedures are provided to eligible Veterans free of charge.
Due to the new SERVICE Act, mammography screenings are now provided to Veterans under the age of 40, who were not previously eligible, to be part of the VA’s National mammography screening policy if they have an elevated risk due to in-service toxic exposures like open burn pits.
Veterans who don`t show any symptoms or have elevated risks of developing breast cancer and are younger than 40 years old, may now receive the breast cancer risk assessment and mammogram screening free of charge every 5 years until age 40. After 40 they would become eligible for standard breast cancer screening.
The screening can be done at VA facilities or through authorized community providers if your local VA healthcare facility cannot provide thorough testing for some reason.
How to apply for the screening under the 2023 SERVICE Act
While the mammography screening does not establish service-connection claims or eligibility for other VA benefits, here at VCU, we strongly recommend consulting a professional in order to make sure that you manage to provide all the necessary documents and eligibility evidence and get the most out of the benefits the SERVICE Act is intended to provide you.
There are two ways to apply for screening:
- Enroll in VA health care and access the SERVICE Act benefits along with other VA services.
- Apply only for the SERVICE Act benefits using the “Registration” box on the 10–10EZ form.
Summary of the SERVICE Act
The SERVICE Act broadens breast cancer screening eligibility for Veterans who have been exposed to life-threatening toxins, which may lead to the development of breast cancer.
The diagnostic screenings are provided based on your service history, service location, and symptoms, with a focus on diagnosis breast cancer in the early stages, thereby increasing the chances of successful treatment.
Contact VCU today and let our team help you check your eligibility for the benefits offered by the SERVICE Act and explore your entitlement to other valuable VA benefits, ensuring you receive the support and compensation you deserve.