WASHINGTON — Responding to heightened publicity and an uneven smattering of decisions on claims, the Department of Veterans Affairs will begin training a specialized cadre of workers this week to handle disability claims related to historic water contamination at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, N.C.
The agency will consolidate claims at one office in Louisville, Ky. Eight employees there will focus on culling, researching and adjudicating disability claims related to the contaminated water.
The move is more than bureaucratic; it could prove significant to Marine veterans across the country who are suffering from cancers and other diseases that they think are related to the poisonous chemicals that flowed through Lejeune's water from the mid-1950s to the mid-1980s.
"Great. Great!" Marine veteran Peter Devereaux of North Andover, Mass., said when he heard about the VA's decision. "It seems they're stepping up and trying to take control."
Devereaux, 48, suffers from a terminal form of male breast cancer. It took him two years to finally earn service-connected disability benefits in August, and all along the way, he said, he had to explain the Lejeune water problems to VA officials.
"It felt like I had to beg," he said. "You try to be a man. You know, I served my country. The last thing you want to say 20 years later is, 'I need benefits.' "
McClatchy reported in June that the VA's decisions on Lejeune-related claims appeared uneven, and they varied for Marines across the country. That led to questions from Congress about whether the VA was doing enough to track cases related to the contamination. Devereaux was among those who testified on the issue.
A million people — civilian workers, Marines and their family members — are thought to have been exposed to the contaminated water at Camp Lejeune, and more than 160,000 have registered with the Marine Corps to learn more about the case.
From the mid-1950s to the mid-1980s, water wells at Lejeune were poisoned with trichloroethylene (TCE), tetrachloroethylene (PCE), benzene, vinyl chloride and other volatile organic chemicals. The wells were shuttered in the mid-'80s, but many Marine veterans and their families had no idea of the contamination until Congress required the military to notify them beginning in 2008.
Bradley Flohr, the VA's assistant director for policy in compensation and pension service, said in an interview that the agency was acting now because it had grown concerned that disability decisions hadn't been consistent across regional offices.
"Perhaps we're not getting as consistent decisions as we would like to have," Flohr said. "We've committed to do training for staff dedicated to do these claims."
The department found about 195 adjudicated disability claims that listed Camp Lejeune's contaminated water as a cause. Of those, just 32 have been approved.
In September, Thomas J. Pamperin, now the VA's deputy undersecretary for disability assistance, testified to the House of Representatives that the VA hadn't found conclusive evidence to link the water to a host of cancers and other diseases. Instead, the VA reviewed claims on a case-by-case basis, which resulted in scattershot decisions.
Now the agency has decided to have one office review all incoming Lejeune claims. So far, about 100 new ones await adjudication, Pamperin said in an interview.
Flohr plans to travel to Louisville this week to educate workers about the exposure, the types of chemicals that were in the water and the associated diseases. He said Louisville was chosen as the central site because it was a high-performing regional office.
"We know for certain benzene is most often associated with leukemias, acute myelocytic leukemia, and others," Flohr said. "Kidney cancer as well, with TCE and PCE, and liver cancer is associated with vinyl chloride."
The VA's move to consolidate Lejeune-related claims comes even as federal scientists in Atlanta continue a years-long project to understand the contamination's health effects better. Results of water-modeling and other studies from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry are expected in 2013, Flohr said.
The VA already had tried this year to update regional offices about the water contamination, but not always with the most up-to-date information. The agency sent a memo last spring to regional offices, but it referenced a controversial 2009 report from the National Research Council that left out significant contaminants and that epidemiologists have disputed.
Flohr said the letter was updated this past summer to include other contaminants, such as benzene and vinyl chloride.
This fall, the director of the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry sent a letter to the Department of the Navy and the Marines warning them that the National Research Council report had flaws, including leaving out certain contaminants, low-balling potential impacts of exposure to the chemicals and not fully appreciating how more scientific study would better explain the health effects of the contamination.
"Let me be perfectly clear; there was undoubtedly a hazard associated with drinking the contaminated water at Camp Lejeune," wrote Christopher Portier, the director of the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry and the National Center for Environmental Health.
The VA also received a copy of the letter, Flohr said.
In response to congressional inquiries, the agency has begun tagging claims that list Lejeune's water as a cause; traditionally claims have been tracked by disability, not cause.
APPLYING FOR DISABILITY BENEFITS
To apply for service-connected disability, a veteran must fill out VA Form 21-526, Veteran's Application for Compensation and/or Pension. More information is online.
In order to have a service connection for a disability, a veteran must show that exposure to the contaminated water "as likely as not" caused the disability. That comes through what's called a "nexus letter," which is written by a physician and shows the connection. The veteran also could request a medical opinion from a VA doctor.
To learn more about the Marines' registry on historic water contamination at Camp Lejeune, go to Camp Lejeune Historic Drinking Water or call 877-261-9782.
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