The Department of Veterans Affairs announced plans on Monday to begin revising how it grants disability benefits for veterans who lived at Camp Lejeune, a Marine Corps base in North Carolina, during the 30-plus years that toxic chemicals tainted the base's drinking water.
The VA's move to establish "presumptive status" for these exposed veterans -- that is, to presume that specific illnesses diagnosed in certain vets are a result of their military service -- should eventually make it easier for them to win benefits.
The change comes amid scrutiny over the growing rates of disability claim denials since the 2013 launch of the agency's subject matter experts (SME) program. Veterans, along with advocates and scientists, have speculated that the program may be part of an effort to deny claims and evade the responsibility to care for veterans sickened by environmental exposures while serving their country.
"Is the VA allowed to just willy-nilly change the claims process to meet its needs?" said retired Master Sgt. Jerry Ensminger during a conversation with The Huffington Post Monday.
As HuffPost reported last week, prior to 2013 -- when the VA hired 22 experts to begin reviewing and offering opinions on veterans' cases -- the agency was approving about 1 in 4 disability benefit claims filed by Camp Lejeune veterans. Since the agency began consulting with the experts, that figure has plummeted to 1 in 20. Gerald Cross, chief officer for the VA's Office of Disability and Medical Assessment, told HuffPost in July that his agency stood by its SMEs. A spokeswoman for the VA said Tuesday that Cross had recently retired, although HuffPost was not able to confirm the specific date.
Under the VA's pending plan, vets who meet eligibility requirements will receive disability benefits for a set of health conditions yet to be determined by the agency. The controversial SME process will no longer be necessary. Medical care for 15 different illnesses, including kidney cancer and leukemia, is already mandated by a 2012 federal bill named after Ensminger's daughter Janey, who was born on the base and died of a rare form of leukemia at age 9.
Ensminger, who has devoted nearly 18 years to research and advocacy on the issue since losing his daughter, called the VA's latest step a "good start."
"There's no way that they could stand behind their SME process and, furthermore, no way they could stand behind their SMEs," said Ensminger. "These people didn't have the training to be making the decisions they were making."
'Not a bad birthday present'
Pfc. Scott Duncan was among the estimated 1 million Marines and family members who were stationed at Camp Lejeune during the period of contamination. He has since been diagnosed with kidney cancer -- one of a number of illnesses linked with exposure to the toxic chemicals that leached into Lejeune's water. He was denied disability benefits after an SME provided her opinion of his case to the VA.
Duncan turned 54 on Monday. "Not a bad birthday present for me," he said of the VA's announcement. "Hope I have many more to come."
Brenda Burpee, the widow of Pfc. Donald Burpee, who died last month after an eight-year battle with kidney cancer, called the announcement a "big step in the right direction to honor him and all Marines." She is still waiting to hear from the VA about her late husband's most recent appeal over claim denials.
Scientific experts and veterans' advocates have also welcomed the news, though they say it ought to have happened sooner.
"I've been recommending a presumptive standard for Camp Lejeune veterans for years," said Richard Clapp, an environmental health expert at the Boston University School of Public Health. "It worked for Agent Orange-exposed veterans, and it is equally appropriate for Camp Lejeune veterans."
Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), who has been a vocal supporter of veterans exposed to toxicants, took Monday's announcement as a tacit admission from the VA that it has been denying benefits to eligible veterans. He and other critics have accused the VA of dragging its feet with regard to veterans exposed to toxicants -- allegedly denying and delaying help, often through the deceitful and faulty use of cherry-picked and outdated science.
"I'm disappointed that we had to pressure the VA to do the right thing for our veterans in the first place," Burr said in a statement. "The scientific research is strong and the widespread denials of benefits will soon end."
Burr met with VA Secretary Robert McDonald in July to discuss what the senator later described to HuffPost as a "questionable pattern of denials of Lejeune veteran claims." On Aug. 19, VA representatives will convene with experts from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to start hammering out the scope of presumptions for Camp Lejeune veterans.
ATSDR scientists have published studies linking the Lejeune contamination with increased rates of death from cancer. The base's water was found to be polluted by dozens of chemicals from at least 1953 through the mid-1980s. Among the toxicants, trichloroethylene (TCE), perchloroethylene (PCE), vinyl chloride and benzene are thought to be the most damaging to human health.
But in spite of this evidence, HuffPost found that VA-hired SMEs repeatedly cited a 2009 report on the Camp Lejeune water contamination published by the National Research Council, part of the National Academy of Sciences. The report, which was commissioned by the U.S. Navy, concluded that the scientific evidence available at the time wasn't sufficient to determine a link between exposures at the base and adverse health effects. Shortly after the report was published, environmental health experts, including leaders with the ATSDR, expressed strong disagreement with the NRC's methods and conclusions.
The VA's press release notes that the agency will "work with ATSDR and potentially the National Academy of Sciences" to evaluate the research into the Lejeune exposures. Ensminger called the latter non-governmental agency -- which lay behind the controversial 2009 report -- a "hired gun."
"That's nothing more than a stalling tactic," he said. "We have government agencies that were created and are being funded to execute this type of work."
Mike Partain, who was born and raised on Camp Lejeune and developed breast cancer at the age of 39, also expressed reservations. "What the VA did with the SME process is, in effect, find a way to deny veterans their claims," he said. "We need to make sure that the apparatus that created the SME process is dismantled and done away with at the VA."
"When Congress and the VA work together to overcome bureaucratic problems, we can take care of our veterans and get them the care and benefits they deserve," Partain went on. "This is the beginning of the end. It's about time."