Lejeune vets' claims to be approved faster for 8 illnesses
By TOM PHILPOTT | SPECIAL TO STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 23, 2017
The Marine Corps has begun outreach to hundreds of thousands of veterans who served at Camp Lejeune, N.C., at least 30 days from August 1953 to December 1987, inviting them or surviving spouses to file for VA compensation if veterans suffered one of eight ailments linked to water contamination on the base.
On March 22, the Corps sent an email blast to more than 120,000 Lejeune veterans who had shared current online addresses on a registry created to identify and educate potential victims of polluted drinking water at Lejeune over a 34-year period, in an era that ended 30 years ago.
The email explained that veterans who can show they served at Lejeune from Aug. 1, 1953, to Dec. 31, 1987, for 30 days or more, are now eligible to file fast-track VA disability compensation claims for eight conditions. The “presumptive” ailments for Lejeune vets are: adult leukemia; aplastic anemia and other myelodysplastic syndromes; bladder cancer; kidney cancer; liver cancer; multiple myeloma; non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma; Parkinson’s disease.
The Marine Corps will follow its email blast with a postal mailing of 200,000 over the next several weeks to home addresses on file with the Camp Lejeune Historic Drinking Water website.
The mailing will advise veterans and survivors that medical science affirms a strong association between compounds that leached into drinking water at Lejeune and the eight ailments. On March 14, a final VA regulation accelerated the processing of qualifying for disability pay. Even drilling reservists who spent weekends and annual training at Lejeune, also for a total of at least 30 days, will be found eligible for VA compensation if they have one of the presumptive ailments.
If Lejeune veterans died from any of the ailments, their surviving spouses or children will see claims for Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC) fast tracked too, under the accelerated process established for Lejeune victims.
Years ago, studies confirmed that Lejeune water had been contaminated by benzene, vinyl chloride and two volatile organic compounds — trichloroethylene (TCE), a metal degreaser, and perchloroethylene (PCE), a dry-cleaning agent.
In 2012 Congress passed the Honoring America’s Veterans and Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act, which opened VA medical care to Lejeune vets diagnosed with one of 15 ailments linked to the pollutants. Because family members aren’t eligible for VA care, the law made VA payer-of-last-resort for Lejeune family members diagnosed with one of the 15 illnesses if their employer or family health insurance fails to cover all treatment costs or they have no insurance.
By December 2015, then-VA Secretary Bob McDonald vowed to use his secretarial authority to review the science again and begin compensating Lejeune vets for disabling conditions most associated with the tainted water. A year later, VA published an interim rule that found eight of the original 15 conditions having a strong association to chemical exposures at Lejeune.
A VA technical workgroup led the comprehensive reviews of evidence, working with the Department of Health and Human Services’ Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, explained Bradley Flohr, senior adviser for the Veterans Benefits Administration’s Compensation Service, in a phone interview.
“We reviewed medical [and] scientific reports of the International Agency for Research on Cancer, the National Toxicology Program and Environmental Protection Agency, which looked at these contaminants and the potential for development of diseases,” he said.
VA’s final rule March 14 allows payment of claims using the presumptive conditions to begin. Presumptive ailment claims can be reviewed by any VA regional office. If Lejeune claims involve any non-presumptive illnesses, however, they still must be referred to Louisville Regional Office in Kentucky, which coordinates to have an environmental health specialist review the evidence and give a medical opinion.
That process, Flohr said, still “takes quite a bit of time.”
More than 18,000 Lejeune veterans have filed compensation claims in recent years for roughly 50,000 medical conditions. Only 1,100 of these veterans have seen at least one claimed condition approved for compensation, Flohr said.
“Of the 50,000 unique conditions we decided,” Flohr said, “about 39,000 were for what we classified as miscellaneous conditions. That is, we have no other category to put them in. They’re not cancers [or] anything else we would track.”
Most of the claimed conditions show no association to exposures at Lejeune.
“They are filing claims for anything — hearing loss, arthritis, hurt backs — all kinds of things with no relationship to the contaminants in the water,” Flohr said.
The Navy Department estimates that from 1953 through 1987, roughly 900,000 veterans were stationed at Camp Lejeune, including 123,000 reserve personnel who conducted weekend drills and annual training there. Of all of those veterans, VA projects that almost 12 percent, or just over 107,000 of active-duty veterans, reservists and survivors, will file claims by 2022 worth $2.2 billion.
Among the first claims being reviewed under the new regulation are 1,400 filed over the past year that VA stayed rather than denied because they involved one of the eight conditions now deemed presumptive. They will be approved quickly “if they don’t involve any non-presumptive conditions,” Flohr said. “This is certainly making it a lot easier for someone who has one of these eight diseases.”
Flohr added that over time more medical studies and new scientific evidence could support adding diseases to the presumptive list for Lejeune.
The Marine Corps mailings will urge veterans who had earlier claims denied, particularly if they involved one of the newly presumptive ailments, to re-file. They will be approved at least back to March 14 but possibly to an earlier effective date if the evidence ties their condition to Lejeune exposures, Flohr said.
VA never provided compensation before to reserve component members for environmental exposures involving weekend drills and annual training versus periods of active service. The Lejeune situation in that regard is unique and could create some challenges to document 30 days’ reserve time exposure.
“It may not be all that difficult but it might be in some cases,” Flohr said.
The Marine Corps hopes to reach as many Lejeune vets as possible about the new presumptive diseases. In addition to the website, it operates a call center Monday to Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., Eastern Time. The phone number is: 877-261-9782
Lejeune vets with medical evidence of a presumptive disease and documents showing Lejeune service in the period of contamination can file claims using VA Form 21-526EZ. Veterans service organizations can help file for benefits. Claims also can be filed electronically through eBenefits.