The Department of Veterans Affairs expects up to 15,000 seriously ill veterans who served at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, before 1988, when base drinking water was contaminated, to be helped by a faster-track compensation process proposed last month.
But the promised acceleration in VA disability awards can’t begin until the proposed regulation becomes final, which could take at least another year to complete, VA officials said in a phone interview Tuesday.
In this case, time is money. Every month that passes before a final regulation takes effect is a month of compensation lost to ailing veterans of an older generation, most of them Marines.
VA Secretary Bob McDonald announced in mid-December that eight conditions afflicting vets who served at Lejeune from Aug. 1, 1953, through Dec. 31, 1987, are to be presumed the result of exposure to carcinogens and other harmful chemicals that fouled base water systems. The proposed “presumptive” diseases are kidney cancer, liver cancer, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, leukemia, multiple myeloma, scleroderma, Parkinson’s disease and aplastic anemia/myelodysplastic syndromes.
Making ailments presumptive moves compensation awards nearer to automatic. Diagnosed veterans still must file claims but they only need to show they served at Lejeune during the 34-year span for a necessary length of time. A minimum of 30 days is likely although officials won’t confirm that until a proposed regulation is published, which is expected by mid-2016.
Without presumption, claims are adjudicated more slowly, with each claimant having to show a nexus between their disease and their service.
The Navy Department estimates that 900,000 active duty and reserve component personnel were assigned to Lejeune while water was being contaminated by nearby storage tanks and a dry cleaning business. Roughly 500,000 of these veterans are believed still alive.
Based on the prevalence of such illnesses in a population of that size, VA estimates fewer than 15,000 vets will qualify for compensation under the proposed regulation. Also, 5000 survivors of deceased veterans are expected to qualify for death benefits because of these presumptive illnesses.
Three senators rightly claim some credit for this. Last July Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., chairman of the veterans’ affairs committee, and Sens. Richard Burr and Thom Tillis, Republicans of North Carolina, met with McDonald and the director of the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Work by the ATSDR has confirmed harmful levels of exposure at Lejeune to trichloroethylene, tetrachloroethylene, vinyl chloride and benzene.
McDonald told participants he wanted to create a list of presumptive illnesses linked to long-ago service at Lejeune to speed the claim process.
Brad Flohr, senior adviser for compensation services at the Veteran Benefits Administration, attended the meeting. When asked, Flohr advised McDonald and senators that a regulation establishing new presumptive ailments typically takes two years to produce. McDonald said that was too long. So VA is striving to compress the process by six months or more. It did so once before, in 2009, when then-Secretary Eric Shinseki added heart disease, Parkinson’s and B-cell leukemia to the VA list of illnesses presumed caused by Agent Orange exposure in Vietnam, Flohr said. “The secretary has pledged we will do the same with this,” Flohr said.
Since January 2011 more than 20,000 veterans have filed claims citing environmental hazards at Lejeune. Of the 13,213 veterans given decisions through November last year, only 864, or 6.5 percent, were granted compensation for illnesses tied to having served at Lejeune. Almost 8,000 of these veterans are receiving VA compensation already for other service-connected conditions. So many Lejeune claims have been denied, Flohr said, because ailments claimed are not linked to the pollutants.
“Over 90 percent of claim issues are conditions that have nothing at all to do with the contaminants in the water,” Flohr said. “They claim hearing loss. They claim tinnitus. They have some idea they should file a claim for anything they have.”
What has angered veterans and lawmakers, however, is the number of claims rejected for conditions has linked to Lejeune’s water. Burr complained that the VA was making “ridiculous” use of available science.
VA has tracked claim outcomes for six of the eight diseases on the proposed presumptive list. Of 2,039 claims filed so far, only 311, or 15 percent, have been approved. When the proposed regulation takes effect, the approval rate for these conditions should jump toward 100 percent.
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