WASHINGTON — The top Republican on the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee blasted the Department of Veterans Affairs on Thursday for not communicating about how it's handling medical claims from Marines who were once stationed at Camp Lejeune, N.C.
Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina said his staff learned from a constituent that medical cases from across the country were being consolidated at the Veterans Affairs regional benefits office in Louisville, Ky.
Since March, some 200 Marine veterans have applied to have their disabilities connected to water contamination at Lejeune. So far, only about 20 have been granted connections.
The water was poisoned from the mid-1950s to the mid-1980s with trichloroethylene, tetrachloroethylene, benzene, vinyl chloride and other chemicals. The chemicals have been linked to a host of cancers and other diseases.
Some advocates and Marine veterans said they felt cautiously optimistic about the consolidation, hoping that it will streamline the process of connecting disabilities to the poisoned water.
"There have been some signs of slow progress" at the VA, Burr said during a Senate hearing.
But, he said, his staff was unable to find out why the VA has denied so many claims. And, he said, the agency should have told the committee about its plans to consolidate claims at Louisville.
"While this is possibly welcome news, the VA did not proactively inform me or any member of this committee of the change in this process," Burr said.
"This latest episode is another example of the broader problem we face with the bureaucratic culture of a VA that does not welcome oversight and resists information sharing," Burr said.
Calls to VA officials Thursday requesting comment weren't returned.
Former Marine Sgt. Andy Zelenski of Bridgeport, Ohio, told McClatchy on Thursday that he learned Monday that his case had been moved from Cleveland to Louisville. An official in the VA office in Washington told him that the cases were being consolidated in Louisville, Zelenski said.
"He said it's going to be more beneficial to all veterans because the people trained on the chemicals and on the diseases related to the chemicals," said Zelenski, 50. He suffers from a host of ailments, including kidney disease, renal failure and neuropathy.
"I'm hopeful," Zelenski said. "I don't know if it's a small sense of hope, but... they're trying to get a handle on this issue."
His case, first filed in 2006, has been denied at least once. He said Thursday that he'd now been told to expect an answer about his case within two weeks.
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