VA Failing Veterans: Why Many Camp Lejeune Claims Are Wrongly Rejected
VA Failing Veterans: Why Many Camp Lejeune Claims Are Wrongly Rejected
For almost a century, US military personnel have been victims of toxic exposure to a range of harmful substances known to cause life-threatening afflictions. During their service, soldiers and their families stationed at military bases across the US have come in contact with toxic agents through widespread contamination.
The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) estimates that up to 900,000 troops and their families stationed at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina were exposed to toxic substances over a period spanning more than three decades. Although the contamination has been acknowledged and qualifies those diagnosed with severe conditions for VA benefits, many veterans and their loved ones feel that their suffering is invalidated by the complicated bureaucratic process and the high rate of rejected claims.
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Camp Lejeune – A Legacy of Toxic Exposure
The unfortunate truth is that most US veterans have been exposed to hazardous substances while serving, either during training, performing work duties, or simply being stationed in a contaminated area. Some of the most notorious toxic agents include probable and known carcinogens like per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), asbestos, and agent orange.
From 1953 until 1987, the Marine Corps base at Camp Lejeune, which housed more than 1 million service members and their families, faced increased contamination in the form of volatile organic compounds stemming from solvents, degreasers, oil, radioactive chemicals, and industrial waste. Multiple studies have identified up to 70 hazardous chemicals contaminating the base’s grounds in amounts 240 to 3400 times higher than admissible limits.
Some of the most dangerous substances contaminating Camp Lejeune for the better part of the last century are trichloroethylene (TCE), perchloroethylene (PCE), trihalomethanes, halogenated hydrocarbons, vinyl chloride, and benzene. Long-term exposure to these contaminants leads to their progressive build-up in the organism and can cause debilitating health issues over the years. Those health issues also include multiple types of cancer, congenital disabilities, miscarriage, infertility issues, hepatic steatosis, scleroderma, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and neurobehavioral effects.
The VA Wrongly Rejects Most Toxic Injury Claims from Camp Lejeune
In 2012, the US Congress passed two sets of legislation that provide medical and healthcare benefits to veterans stationed at Camp Lejeune. With on-site research attesting to the base’s widespread contamination, the VA laid out guidelines determining the eligibility of toxic exposure claims.
Thus, the VA also began employing “subject matter experts” to review each claim originating from Camp Lejeune and establish if the diagnoses were service-related. An investigation into the VA’s records brought to light several issues regarding the reviewer’s credentials, most notably that some of them were general practitioners that lacked relevant expertise in the types of conditions that veterans and their affected loved ones were facing.
What resulted was a significant drop in toxic claim approvals from 25% to only 5%. Although the VA disputed these facts and provided a breakdown of their approval ratings since 2011, their figures confirmed the drastic decrease in claim approvals after they began using subject matter experts in 2012.
Between 2013 and 2016, only 1% to 4.5% of Camp Lejeune claims were deemed eligible for benefits through the VA. Between 2011 and 2019, out of the 761 claims filed by veterans from the state of Washington, 83% were denied.
In 2017, US Congress and the VA made several improvements to the benefits process by creating a presumption for of 8 illnesses with sufficient evidence to support a toxic exposure connection at Camp Lejeune. Subsequently, the rate of claim approvals has increased, but the approval rate is still below 25%.
Affected veterans believe that even though the VA focuses on approving diseases considered presumptive conditions, the list isn’t sufficiently comprehensive and should be amended to include a broader range of afflictions associated with the toxic substances present at Camp Lejeune.
Camp Lejeune Justice Act of 2022 – A Bipartisan Bill That Could End Veterans’ Struggles
In 2016, more than 800 lawsuits involving toxic exposure at Camp Lejeune were consolidated into an MDL in North Carolina. However, due to the state’s statute of repose that limits the ability to file a civil lawsuit to only 10 years after the injury occurred, regardless of whether the victim was aware of it or not, the MDL was dismissed. By 2018, all of the appeals for the MDL’s dismissal were exhausted, leaving thousands of vulnerable veterans and their families without legal recourse.
In March 2021, Congressman Matt Cartwright introduced the Camp Lejeune Justice Act of 2021 to the House of Representatives, and while it was read twice and sent to the Committee on the Judiciary, its progress was ultimately stunted.
In January 2022, a redrafted form of the original bill was introduced in the House by Congressman Cartwright as the Camp Lejeune Justice Act of 2022, with the bipartisan support of 10 democrat and 6 republican representatives across 8 different states. In February 2022, it was merged into a more encompassing bill known as the Honoring our PACT Act of 2022, which similarly addresses the benefits and resources that should be afforded to veterans for their toxic exposure during service.
If the bill becomes law, it will circumvent North Carolina’s statute of repose, allowing Camp Lejeune victims to file a federal lawsuit in the state’s Eastern District. The new deadline would enable victims diagnosed with relevant illnesses to file a lawsuit within 2 years of the bill’s passing or 2 years after harm occurred or was identified in yet-to-be-diagnosed individuals. The bill also establishes a lower burden of proof, allowing plaintiffs to cite a valid scientific study proving a link between their injuries and the toxic substances contaminating Camp Lejeune as sufficient evidence.
In March 2022, the Honoring our PACT Act, which incorporates the Camp Lejeune bill, passed the House’s vote and was submitted to the Senate, which passed an amended version of the bill in June 2022 with strong bipartisan support. Even though the amendments are still discussed and require the House’s approval, it’s expected that the bill will pass this summer.
Although progress has been upsettingly slow, these recent developments bring a renewed hope for veterans whose claims have been repeatedly denied by the VA, giving them and their families the ability to seek the rightful compensation their struggle entitles them to.
About the Author
Jonathan Sharp serves as the CFO of the Birmingham, Alabama-based Environmental Litigation Group, P.C., a law firm specializing in toxic exposure cases that helps veterans and their loved ones affected by hazardous substances at military installations.