VA to pay billions to veterans affected by toxic water at Camp Lejeune
By NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPES Published: January 13, 2017
WASHINGTON – The Department of Veterans Affairs is preparing to give out an estimated $2.2 billion during the next five years to thousands of veterans suffering from serious illnesses caused by contaminated water at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.
A new VA rule published Friday will automatically grant disability compensation to Camp Lejeune veterans with adult leukemia, anemia, multiple myeloma, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Parkinson’s disease and bladder, kidney or liver cancer. To be eligible, veterans had to have served at the Marine Corps base a cumulative 30 days from Aug. 1, 1953 to Dec. 31, 1987.
The VA estimates approximately 900,000 active-duty, Reserve and National Guard veterans fit into that category.
The rule, which will go into effect in March, is the culmination of veterans struggling for years to get federal benefits. People serving at Camp Lejeune during that time were exposed to a metal degreaser and a dry cleaning agent in the drinking water supply that served on-base homes, businesses, recreational facilities and the hospital.
When the rule goes into effect, it will be the first instance the VA has officially connected veterans to diseases that were caused by toxic environments within the United States.
“This is historic,” said Dr. Ralph Erickson, who leads post-deployment health research at the VA. “It’s a major first. Most presumptions in the past have been directed to exposures occurred during deployment. From my standpoint, I feel this is very much the right thing for us to be doing for veterans.”
While Camp Lejeune veterans could already receive compensation from illness caused by the toxic water through the Camp Lejeune Act, the VA designating the diseases as service-connected enables veterans to receive benefits more quickly and requires less paperwork.
The VA established a work group in December 2015 to look into the issue. Since then, Camp Lejeune veterans’ claims for compensation have been put on hold. As of Jan. 1, there were 1,419 claims related to toxic water at Camp Lejeune awaiting a decision on whether they are eligible.
Decisions on those claims will be made when the new rule goes into effect. Any Camp Lejeune veteran or survivor who applied for benefits before December 2015 and was denied will have to apply again.
The VA is estimating it will pay out nearly $380 million to 19,500 veterans or their survivors in the first year the rule is in effect.
To apply for compensation, veterans need to show records that they served at the base during the given time and are diagnosed with one of the eight diseases.
The VA does not have authority to give out benefits to family members who are affected with disease caused by the base water supply. However, family members can sign up for reimbursement of medical costs through the Camp Lejeune Family Member Program created in 2012.
While Erickson said the new rule is a “very big win” for veterans, there’s some trepidation that not all of the veterans affected by the contamination are eligible for benefits.
In 2009, the National Research Council linked the water to 14 health conditions in veterans and 15 conditions were part of the Camp Lejeune Act.
Using information from the Environmental Protection Agency, National Institute of Health, World Health Organization and National Academy of Sciences, the VA work group said it could connect only eight diseases.
Evidence for other health conditions was “not sufficient,” the VA said.
The conditions not included in the new rule are breast, lung and esophageal cancers, scleroderma, renal toxicity, hepatic steatosis, female infertility and miscarriage.
“It rarely happens that the VA does the right thing in total,” said Rick Weidman, a leader with Vietnam Veterans of America. “So, we’re going to have to fight for any additional diseases, which we’re perfectly prepared to do.”