Senators Hammer VA's 'Intolerably Long' Delay In Addressing Toxic Exposures

"We know that the modern battlefield includes perils even for the veteran who hasn't been engaged in combat."

The Senate Veterans Affairs Committee heard testimony on Tuesday from senators and advocates who urged the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to remove roadblocks to care and compensation for veterans sickened by environmental toxicants, including contaminated drinking water at North Carolina's Camp Lejeune.

"Agents within the VA system have expended more effort, time and money devising methods to deny Camp Lejeune victims their rightful benefits rather than providing them," Retired Master Sgt. Jerry Ensminger, who has devoted nearly 18 years to research and advocacy on the issue, said in his testimony before the Senate. His daughter Janey, who was born on the base, died on Sept. 24, 1985, at the age of 9 from a rare form of leukemia.

Jerry Ensminger holds a protrait of his daughter Janey, who died at the age of 9 from a rare form of cancer. She was born at Camp Lejeune.
Jerry Ensminger holds a protrait of his daughter Janey, who died at the age of 9 from a rare form of cancer. She was born at Camp Lejeune.

"The 30th anniversary of her death was just five short, painful days ago," added Ensminger. "Janey is but one example of the multitude of tragedies suffered by former Camp Lejeune families who were exposed by this negligence."

As The Huffington Post has previously reported, Ensminger is among critics who 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to toxicants -- allegedly denying and delaying help, often through the deceitful and faulty use of cherry-picked and outdated science. Hundreds of thousands of former and current military personnel have likely encountered a number of toxicants, from burn-pit smoke in the Middle East to plumes of radiation off the coast of Fukushima to lingering Agent Orange herbicide, which is now believed to have also affected so-called Blue Water Navy and C-123 veterans who never set foot in Vietnam.

Any of these exposures, experts say, may take years or even decades to manifest as a medical problem like cancer or respiratory disease. Research even suggests the effects could haunt future generations -- with an exposed veteran's unexposed grandchildren and other future descendants also potentially facing elevated health risks.

"We know that the modern battlefield includes perils even for the veteran who hasn't been engaged in combat," Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said during the hearing. "When a veteran signs up for duty, he or she has not signed up their children or grandchildren -- risking their own lives doesn't mean volunteering the next generation for a neurological condition, cancer or other life-threatening conditions."

The VA responded to the escalating Camp Lejeune concerns in August, announcing it intends to revise how it grants disability benefits for veterans who lived at the base between the mid-1950s and the 1980s, when toxic chemicals tainted the base's drinking water. Medical care for 15 different illnesses, including kidney cancer and leukemia, is already mandated by a 2012 federal bill named after Janey Ensminger. 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 -- would eventually make it easier for vets to win disability benefits as well.

But critics remain frustrated and impatient with what they see as continued foot-dragging.

"We got that announcement, but then nothing happened," said Mike Partain, who was born at Camp Lejeune and developed breast cancer at the age of 39. He attended Tuesday's hearing but did not testify.

The VA is currently conducting a separate series of meetings, planned through mid-October, to determine which health conditions should be included in the presumption, noted agency representatives at the hearing. Once that determination is finalized, veterans who meet the eligibility requirements would receive benefits for those conditions.

"I appreciate the urgency to get this settled," Dr. Ralph Erickson, chief consultant for post-deployment health with the agency, told Tuesday's panel.

The VA has so far focused on three conditions that will likely make the list: acute myeloid leukemia, kidney cancer and liver cancer. But the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, or ATSDR, has identified at least six conditions for which it says there is sufficient evidence of a link to Camp Lejeune's poisoned water.

In his testimony, Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) said he'd heard from veterans who continue to be denied benefits even though their health conditions were among the top three under consideration. HuffPost has also been in touch with the widow of one veteran, Pfc. Donald Burpee, who died from kidney cancer on July 7. He lived on the Marine Corps base for four months of 1975. Brenda Burpee told HuffPost in an email that she remains unsuccessful in securing VA compensation for her late husband.

"What I'd like is an assurance that for at least the six [conditions] for which we have sufficient evidence of causation that there will not be another denial," said Tillis. "If there is -- I know I've ratcheted up my temperature in this meeting -- it won't compare to the next one if that happens. Because we owe it to these veterans."

Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), too, couldn't conceal his emotion as he testified on Tuesday.

"Our government rewarded the sacrifices of these patriotic men and women by negligently poisoning them and their families by engaging in a decades-long cover up," said Burr, calling the Camp Lejeune contamination the "worst incident of environmental exposure in our nation's history."

"The resistance inside the VA to the scientific data" with regard to Camp Lejeune, he added, "demonstrates how the VA has dealt with the scientific facts of toxic exposure overall."

Specifically, he highlighted the actions of subject matter experts hired by the VA to review veterans' claims. As HuffPost reported in August, benefit claim approvals plummeted after the program began in 2013. Some of the experts have been scrutinized for alleged disregard of the scientific consensus, as well as their potential conflicts of interest.

Other government leaders are now under fire over what appear to be similar obfuscations.

On Sept. 14 at a forum in Cleveland, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said that while there have been "allegations that there is a higher incidence of illness with people who had gone through as Marines," studies conducted by the ATSDR "can find no correlation." Advocates referenced the inaccurate statement at Tuesday's hearing.

Within days of Mabus' remark, the ATSDR published a study on male breast cancer -- their fifth over the last few years to show a link between exposures at Camp Lejeune and various debilitating diseases and death. Last week, the agency provided the VA with a nearly 70-page report outlining the full body of evidence, which they also summarized in a new statement added to their website:

It is ATSDR's position that past exposures from the 1950s through February 1985 to trichloroethylene (TCE), tetrachloroethylene (PCE), vinyl chloride, and other contaminants in the drinking water at the Camp Lejeune likely increased the risk of cancers (kidney, multiple myeloma, leukemias, and others), adverse birth outcomes, and other adverse health effects of residents (including infants and children), civilian workers, Marines and Naval personnel at Camp Lejeune.

"The ugly truth is out," said Partain. "We are just trying to get the vets something that is 30 years overdue."

Partain and Ensminger further criticized an environmental exposure iPhone app created by the VA, which was highlighted during the hearing by Erickson. Partain downloaded and explored the app, concluding in an email to HuffPost that "it seems to be way behind the times." The information concerning exposures at Camp Lejeune do not reflect the weight of the research, nor statements made by the ATSDR and other agencies concerning links between the exposures and health risks.

Tuesday's hearing also included debate over proposed bills, including one that seeks to enhance research efforts and extend presumptive status to Blue Water Navy veterans exposed to Agent Orange while serving offshore of Vietnam during the war. A similar policy change was granted to vets who served aboard contaminated C-123 airplanes — the craft used to deploy Agent Orange in Vietnam — in the U.S. after the Vietnam War had ended. That move came many years after scientific research began supporting a link.

"Potential exposure to toxic chemicals during military service raises serious and complicated questions," added Blumenthal. "While the impact is undeniable, establishing and qualifying a clear link between the exposures and health effects has become an intolerably long and complex process."

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