On Monday the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) submitted a public comment on a rule proposed by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) that would speed up care for veterans who got sick after being exposed to contaminated water at Camp Lejeune. The rule will automatically presume certain types of cancer and illnesses suffered by veterans, National Guardsmen, and Reservists who had been stationed at Camp Lejeune to be service-connected.
The rule is a much needed step in the right direction: it reduces paperwork and means that sick veterans won’t have to fight to convince the VA that their illness was caused by their time at Camp Lejeune. However, POGO found three areas that unnecessarily restricted the impact the rule will have:
1. The VA specified “adult leukemia,” a qualification to leukemia that may be used to exclude veterans with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL), since it is more commonly associated with children. However, the evidence shows that the chemicals in Camp Lejeune’s water cause all forms of leukemia. POGO recommended that the qualifier of “adult” be removed.
2. The VA did not include Scleroderma (a rare autoimmune disease that hardens skin and internal organs) in the rule, despite the VA’s Camp Lejeune Science Liaison Team’s recommendation that the disease be included. POGO recommended, for several reasons, that Scleroderma be added to the rule.
3. The VA arbitrarily specified that veterans had to have been stationed at Camp Lejeune from August 1953 through 1987 for a minimum of 30 days. This is despite the rule itself saying “VA experts agree that there is no science to support a specific minimum exposure level for any of the conditions.” Veterans who were stationed there for one week or even one day during the time of contamination may have been exposed to significant amounts of dangerous chemicals. POGO recommended that the VA reduce this qualifying threshold.
While the proposed rule may not be perfect, it is encouraging to see the issue being taken seriously and real progress being made for Camp Lejeune victims. One Camp Lejeune advocate shared with POGO a letter from President Obama, in which he recognizes the debt that is owed to all who were harmed at Camp Lejeune:
…as a Nation, it is our solemn duty to ensure they receive the care and support they have earned and deserve. That includes those who served at Camp Lejeune in the years when the water was contaminated.…There’s more to do to ensure all our current and former service members and their families have access to the care they need, and I appreciate your reaching out. Voices like yours have an impact and help inform everything I do.
It is important to remember that his rule would never have been written if not for all the veterans and advocates who for years fought to be recognized. There is always more to be done, but thanks to their unrelenting dedication and perseverance, real progress is being made.
In our comment, POGO also advocated for the creation of a similar rule providing health care to veterans who were exposed to dangerous chemicals while stationed at Fort McClellan. The base was designated as a Superfund site by the Environmental Protection Agency, and nearby residents won a $700 million lawsuit over the contamination. Those veterans are still fighting for recognition.