On August 10, 2022, President Biden signed The Honoring Our PACT Act into law. This bill aims to expand healthcare benefits for veterans and includes the Camp Lejeune Justice Act of 2022, which finally gave legal recourse to victims of water contamination at the military base between 1953 and 1987. Camp Lejeune litigation was quickly underway due to the passage of the PACT Act. In just a month’s time, the Navy received roughly 500,000 Camp Lejeune water contamination cases. However, a disturbing report from the VA has shed light on the prior mishandling of veterans’ claims.
North Carolina Law Prevented Camp Lejeune Litigation
From 1953 to 1987, residents of the Camp Lejeune military base in North Carolina used toxic water contaminated by volatile organic compounds (VOCs), Perchloroethylene (PCE), Trichloroethylene (TCE), vinyl chloride, and benzene. This hazardous water countless residents at the base, including families, workers, and service members. Although agencies informed the military about the unsafe chemicals within the water on several occasions, the military waited decades to address the issue. Individuals used the water for hygiene, cooking, making formula, and drinking, and many claimed they developed adverse health conditions due to the contaminated water.
While over 800 Camp Lejeune water contamination lawsuits were consolidated into multidistrict litigation, a federal judge dismissed the cases in 2016 because of a North Carolina statute. The law prohibited victims from filing lawsuits ten years after the defendant’s last act. Therefore, many veterans sought compensation for their injuries through the United States Department of Veterans Affairs.
VA Blundered 21,000 Camp Lejeune Disability Claims
A new report from the VA’s inspector general revealed that the department had botched nearly 21,000 disability claims related to contaminated water at Camp Lejeune. The report detailed that of the 57,000 claims reviewed between 2017 to 2021, the office mismanaged a staggering 36% of these applications. Staff prematurely rejecting claims without requesting additional evidence accounted for most of the mistakes, affecting approximately 17,000 veterans. In 2017, the VA established eight conditions eligible for claims concerning the water contamination at Camp Lejeune. The eight conditions the VA assigned presumptive service connection include:
Aplastic Anemia and other myelodysplastic syndromes
The VA granted disability compensation for veterans diagnosed with these illnesses with less documentation typically required in other claims. However, veterans who developed other medical conditions due to the water contamination at Camp Lejeune can still apply for VA disability benefits. Unlike the eight presumptive ailments, the VA requires these individuals to submit sufficient evidence linking their illness to Camp Lejeune. Rather than requesting additional documentation from the applying veterans with disorders not considered presumptive conditions, VA staff simply denied many of them. The veterans should have received letters from the VA that indicated the agency needed more evidence of their documented exposure.
Another issue aside from prematurely denying claims concerned the assignment of incorrect effective benefit entitlements dates in over 2,300 cases. Veterans could have received back pay or retroactive payments in some instances, but the staff failed to assign the most advantageous date for these disability claims. The inspector general estimated this resulted in $13.8 million in underpayments.
The VA’s regional office in Louisville, Kentucky, received special training to handle Camp Lejeune cases, and it just so happens this office had the fewest errors at 8%. Meanwhile, other offices where the VA did not provide the same Camp Lejeune training had a 40% error rate. The VA has pledged to offer better training to offices to reduce these mishaps and improve the accuracy of its staff.