Vets poisoned at Camp Lejeune inch closer to VA benefits

WASHINGTON — An expected 15,000 veterans whose serious illnesses are linked to a contaminated water supply at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina could receive compensation more quickly under a proposed Department of Veterans Affairs rule announced Friday.

The rule establishes that for veterans who served a minimum 30 days at Camp Lejeune between 1953 through 1987, the VA will automatically presume a connection to eight diseases: leukemia, anemia, multiple myeloma, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Parkinson’s and bladder, kidney and liver cancer.

People serving at the Marine Corps base during that time were exposed to a metal degreaser and other chemicals in the drinking water supply. The national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2014 determined the contaminants increased risk for the illnesses.

Water lines for a small unit water purification system prototype draw water from a reservoir at Camp Lejeune, N.C., May 9, 2014.
Paul Peterson/U.S. Marine Corps

“The change here is that up until now, each claim was processed on a case-by-case basis,” VA spokesman Randal Noller said in an email. “With the new presumptive, the conditions noted will be ‘presumed’ to be related to exposure at Camp Lejeune with no further evidential requirements.”

In order to be granted status for medical benefits, veterans will need to prove only that they served at Camp Lejeune for at least 30 days – a time frame on which the VA is still seeking public input. VA experts could not establish people exposed to the contaminated water for 30 days were more at risk than others who were at Camp Lejeune for a shorter amount of time.

“Therefore, VA welcomes comments on the 30-day minimum exposure requirement and will consider other practical alternatives when drafting the final rule,” a written statement from the VA reads.

A public comment period started Friday and is open until Oct. 10.

The VA announced in January its intention to fast-track compensation to the affected veterans. But the Office of Management and Budget had to review the proposed rule before it could be published.

In August, Sens. Richard Burr and Thom Tillis, both R-N.C., sent a letter to Office of Management and Budget Director Shaun Donovan, urging for a speedy review. The letter said people contaminated had faced “bureaucratic mistreatment.”

“The victims of Camp Lejeune’s water contamination disaster have waited far too long for justice, and prior OMB delays have been inexplicable,” Tillis said Friday in a written statement. “It’s a relief to see movement.”

According to guidelines of the Federal Register, once the public comment period ends Oct. 10 and a final rule is put forth, there must be another 30-day wait until a rule goes into effect. The guidelines state an agency can make a rule effective sooner if it shows “good cause” that it’s in the public interest.

When it goes into effect, the rule will apply to new and pending disability claims.