The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) mishandled nearly 40% of all disability claims filed for exposure to contaminated water, denying or delaying benefits to more than 21,000 veterans, according to a new report from the VA's top watchdog.
In March 2017, the VA found that service members in North Carolina had exposure to contaminated water at Camp Lejeune and Marine Corps Air Station New River. The contamination occurred for over 30 years.
Of 57,500 claims filed since 2017 for illnesses related to the contamination, the VA denied 17,200 "prematurely" instead of asking for additional information, according to the report from the VA Office of Inspector General (IG).
Claims filed by another 2,300 veterans were assigned incorrect effective dates of benefits entitlement (the date a veteran is eligible for the benefits), denying those veterans nearly $14 million in retroactive payments. A total of 1,500 claims were denied for other technical and procedural errors.
The report notes that service members and their families who lived or worked at Camp Lejeune from 1953 through 1987 were exposed to several volatile organic compounds, including benzene, vinyl chloride, and tetrachloroethylene. The primary sources of the contamination were on-base industrial activities, as well as illegal dumping by a nearby dry-cleaning facility. Over one million people, including civilians and children, are estimated to have been exposed to the chemicals.
The IG found that the Louisville VA regional office made the fewest errors, at 8%. That office established a team dedicated to processing Camp Lejeune-related claims and served as the central processing center for such claims. Other regional offices posted error rates as high as 40%.
"The OIG team concluded this disparity stems from claims processors from other regional offices having limited experience processing Camp Lejeune-related claims," wrote Larry Reinkemeyer, VA's assistant inspector general for audits and evaluations.
The report recommends the VA centralize all Camp Lejeune-related claims to the Louisville office or take steps to lower the error rate of other regional offices.
Retired Marine Corps Master Sgt. Jerry Ensminger lost his 9-year-old daughter to leukemia in 1985 as a result of exposure to the toxic water. Because of a provision in the Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act, which became law this month, Ensminger can now sue the government for civil damages.
Affected veterans or their survivors can file claims through the VA for compensation.