Late Breaking News
Lawmakers Seek to Extend Date for Camp Lejeune Healthcare Claims
By Sandra Basu
WASHINGTON - Legislation signed into law in August was applauded for offering medical care through VA for veterans and family members exposed to contaminated drinking water at Camp Lejeune, NC.
Now, some lawmakers are calling for the law to be modified after a recent report indicates contaminated water was a problem at Camp Lejeune earlier than originally suspected.
Under the law, veterans and family members who served on active duty or resided at Camp Lejeune for 30 days or more between Jan. 1, 1957, and Dec. 31, 1987, could be eligible for VA medical care for 15 health conditions — bladder cancer, miscarriage, breast cancer, multiple myeloma, esophageal cancer, myelodysplastic syndromes, female infertility, neurobehavioral effects, hepatic steatosis, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, kidney cancer, renal toxicity, leukemia, scleroderma and lung cancer.
Sen. Richard Burr, (R-NC), and other lawmakers, however, have sponsored legislation to extend care to those exposed to the contaminated water four years earlier as a result of findings by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) indicating that water at Camp Lejeune was unsafe for human consumption as early as August 1953. While ATSDR notified VA of these findings in January, the report was released this spring.
“There are veterans out there, some of them in dire straits, who have been waiting a long time for these findings,” Burr said in a written statement on the new legislation. “Until now, VA has been unable to help them. It is my hope that Congress will act quickly to pass this bill to get them the care they deserve.”
Veterans and family members had advocated for years for the legislation that passed in August. They asserted that, before the contaminated wells were shut down in the mid-1980s, thousands of Marines and their families were exposed to toxic well water at Camp Lejeune, creating medical issues.
Concerns about the impact of contaminated water led Congress to order the ongoing federal research into the health effects.
VA has maintained “there is insufficient scientific and clinical evidence to establish a presumptive association between service at Camp Lejeune during the period of water contamination and the development of certain diseases” and is handling on a case-by-case basis claims for disability compensation from veterans who say they believe their health problems are related to contamination at the Marine installation.
In passing the law, Congress insisted that federal help for veterans and their families not wait for research to be completed. The new law, which applies to healthcare and not disability compensation, allows veterans who resided at Camp Lejeune for no fewer than 30 days to be eligible for hospital care and medical services for any of the 15 illnesses or conditions listed “notwithstanding that there is insufficient medical evidence to conclude that such illnesses or conditions are attributable to such residence.”
While VA generally only provides care to veterans, the new law was unusual in that it also made provisions for family members, stating that they also are eligible, in some circumstances, for “hospital care and medical services” provided by the Secretary of Veteran Affairs.
“This bill ends a decade-long struggle for those who serve at Camp Lejeune,” President Barack Obama said during the bill-signing ceremony. “Some of the veterans and their families who were based in Camp Lejeune in the years when the water was contaminated will now have access to extended medical care.”
Waiting for Care
Meanwhile, even while some lawmakers are calling to extend the timeframe of the bill, affected family members are still waiting to take advantage of the new law, which makes VA their payer of last resort.
Terry Walters, MD, co-chair of the VA Camp Lejeune Task Force, said that, by statute, the cost of care for family members for the 15 conditions listed in the bill could not be reimbursed until Congress provides the funding. Language to permit the spending of those funds was passed by Congress in March.
Even with the money provided, Walters conceded it would take time until family members will benefit because of a rule-making system that is “complex and sometimes lengthy.”
Walters said VA is determining the details of being a “second payer” for family members. Furthermore, the task force must ensure the 15 conditions listed are defined when ambiguous, though VA is “working extremely hard and fast to try and implement a complex program,” she said.
For those affected by the Camp Lejeune situation, however, help cannot come fast enough.
Jerry Ensminger, a former Marine Corps drill instructor and prominent activist who helped shine a spotlight on the contaminated water issue, said he believes his 9-year-old daughter’s death from childhood leukemia is linked to exposure to the contaminated drinking water there. The new law, the Janey Ensminger Act, was named in memory of his daughter.
“It should be the VA’s mission to provide the best care to our veterans (in this case some family members) in the most expedient manner possible. Unfortunately, the reality is quite the opposite and that isn’t just for Camp Lejeune, that goes for the entire VA system,” Ensminger told U.S. Medicine in an email.
Information on Camp Lejeune from the ATSDR
The Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry (ATSDR) used water‐modeling techniques and historical reconstruction process to estimate monthly contaminant levels in drinking water within the Hadnot Point and Holcomb Boulevard water-treatment plant service areas at Camp Lejeune, NC, according to a report released in March.
ATSDR estimates that drinking water from the Hadnot Point water-treatment plant exceeded the current maximum contaminant levels (MCL) for one or more VOCs from August 1953 through January 1985. The specific VOCs that ATSDR examined are:
- trichloroethylene (TCE),
- tetrachloroethylene (PCE),
- trans 1,2‐dichloroethylene, (1,2‐tDCE)
- vinyl chloride, and
With the exception of trans 1,2‐dichloroethylene, ATSDR says these chemicals have been classified as causing or probably causing cancer. Noncancer diseases associated with the chemicals are aplastic anemia, infertility, kidney diseases, liver disease, lupus, miscarriage, Parkinson’s disease, scleroderma and skin disorders.
The Hadnot Point Water Treatment Plant opened in 1942 and provided water to both the Hadnot Point and Holcomb Boulevard service areas, according to the report, even though it was contaminated with TCE, PCE and refined petroleum products.
The Holcomb Boulevard Water Treatment plant came online in 1972 and was not contaminated, except for periodic transfers of water from the Hadnot Point Water System, according to the ATSDR.