According to an investigation by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Office of the Inspector General (OIG), workers inside the VA mishandled thousands of Camp Lejeune disability claims filed by veterans victimized by the contaminated water at Camp Lejeune.
Five years ago, the VA began offering particular disability benefits to veterans who had become sick due to toxins in the Camp Lejeune water. As a result of the mishandling of these disability claims, former military personnel across the country deserving of government benefits have been left without support.
Toxins flowed through two different water systems at Camp Lejeune from 1953-1987. The Camp Lejeune water contamination was caused by improper disposal of solvents by a neighboring dry-cleaning company and other sources of contamination, including leaks from underground storage tanks and spills at industrial sites. It was not until October 1989 that Camp Lejeune was placed on the Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund program’s National Priorities List.
To receive the disability benefits from the VA, victims must have worked or lived at Camp Lejeune for a minimum of 30 days between August 1, 1953, and December 31, 1987. They also had to have suffered from one of eight presumptive conditions or illnesses known to be related to the Camp Lejeune water contamination, including adult leukemia, aplastic anemia and other myelodysplastic syndromes, bladder cancer, kidney cancer, liver cancer, multiple myeloma, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and Parkinson’s disease. The presumption status allows veterans to file disability claims without having to prove that their conditions were connected to active-duty service.
According to the VA’s OIG report, released on August 25, 2022, the investigation was done to ensure staff “followed regulations” when processing the claims. The report gave details of a statistical sampling of 57,500 claims filed between March 2017 and March 2021. It was determined staff denied about 71 percent of the claims that were filed and that errors were made on approximately 21,000 claims.
Camp Lejeune Disability Claims Errors
Two major types of errors were discovered in the Camp Lejeune disability claims process. Errors involving about 2,300 claims were made by staffers who assigned an incorrect effective date for benefit entitlement. Overall, the report said, veterans were underpaid at least $13.8 million in benefits for granted claims because VA regional office staff did not assign the earliest effective date permitted by federal regulation.
Also, errors were made in the premature denial of 17,200 claims. The claims were denied because staff did not ask the veterans who filed the claims for further “evidence of injury and exposure to the contamination.” The report said that some of these veterans’ claims could have been granted if staff had sent veterans “a required letter’’ informing them of a need for more documentation.
Along with the two main errors, another 1,500 claims were not processed correctly because of technical or procedural mistakes.
Regarding the mistakes made at the VA, the OIG report recommended that if the processing errors are not reduced in regional offices, all Camp Lejeune-related claims should be moved to the Louisville office. The agency found that errors were less likely to occur at the Louisville Regional Office, which already handles most of these claims. “Staff from other VA regional offices lacked experience processing these claims,” the report said.
Other Ways to Seek Compensation for Camp Lejeune Injuries
While the report from the OIG is daunting, for those denied Camp Lejeune benefits, there is still hope.
On August 10, 2022, President Biden signed legislation known as the Honoring our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act. While a bulk of the PACT Act is wrapped around expanding benefits for veterans exposed to burn pits and other toxic substances, it also includes the Camp Lejeune Justice Act. The Camp Lejeune Justice Act is designed to give victims of the contaminated water crisis the ability to seek compensation for Camp Lejeune injuries directly from the U.S. government.
Under the Camp Lejeune Justice Act, individuals who either worked or lived at Camp Lejeune for at least 30 days between August 1, 1953, and December 31, 1987, and have suffered injuries due to water contamination exposure (including in utero) can file a Camp Lejeune claim with the Office of the Judge Advocate General (JAG) of the Navy’s Tort Claims Unit (TCU). If the claim is denied and a settlement is not reached, a Camp Lejeune lawsuit can be filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina. There is a caveat, however. Individuals must file a Camp Lejeune claim by August 10, 2024.