I have written previously about Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, and the diseases associated with its contaminated water. Additionally, blogs have discussed the VA’s proposed presumptions for some of those diseases. Those Camp Lejeune presumptions are finally here.
For those who have not heard about Camp Lejeune, briefly, it is a 246 square-mile Marine Corp base in Jacksonville, North Carolina. After being opened in 1941, the base water was contaminated with chemicals due to the disposal practices of an off-base dry cleaning operation and leaking gasoline containers at Hadnot Point. It is estimated that chemicals known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs) were infiltrating the water system at Camp Lejeune as early as 1948 and that hundreds of thousands of veterans were exposed. Treatment for diseases associated with the contaminated water was first addressed by Congress in the Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act of 2012.
Unfortunately, neither the new presumptive conditions nor the diseases covered by the Caring for Families of Camp Lejeune Act extend back 1948.
That being said, veterans of Camp Lejeune are eligible for free hospital care and medical services for 15 diseases if they served on active duty at Camp Lejeune for 30 days or more between January 1, 1957, and December 31, 1987. The VA also provides reimbursement for out of pocket expenses of qualifying family members of Camp Lejeune veterans who were also exposed to the contaminated water (slightly more complicated than this article will address). The fifteen diseases covered by the 2012 Act are:
- Esophageal cancer
- Lung cancer
- Breast cancer
- Bladder cancer
- Kidney cancer
- Multiple myeloma
- Myleodysplasic syndromes
- Renal toxicity
- Hepatic Steatosis
- Female infertility
- Neurobehavioral effects
- Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma
More recently, the VA has come out with diseases that are presumptively service connected based on very similar eligibility requirements. The list is shorter and includes only 8 diseases at present. Those are as follows:
- Adult leukemia
- Aplastic anemia and other myelodysplastic syndromes
- Bladder Cancer
- Kidney Cancer
- Liver Cancer
- Multiple myeloma
- Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and
- Parkinson’s disease
To be eligible for presumptive service connection, you must:
- Be an active duty, reserve or National Guard member who was discharged under conditions other than dishonorable,
- Have served at Camp Lejeune for at least 30 days (cumulative, between August 1, 1953, and December 31, 1987 (***Note the differences in date from the healthcare services above.***) and,
- Have a current disease on the list of presumptive conditions.
By making the diseases presumptive the VA has conceded a “nexus”, which is usually required by the VA in proving service connection. The nexus is a link between the veteran’s current condition and his military service.
The main problem that could be forthcoming in these cases is getting the correct rating for your disability. The assigned rating for a service connected condition should represent the level of severity of the disability in terms of interference with a veteran’s ability to work. Each condition is assigned a distinct diagnostic code (DC) which relates to the VA’s disability rating criteria. It is important that once you have the DC that you review the criteria to make sure the rating assigned accurately reflects your condition. If not, it’s time to appeal.
The new presumption applies to claims that are pending before the VA at the time the presumption went into effect, March 14, 2017, and those received after the effective date of the presumption. It will not apply retroactively to finally adjudicated claims. This is an important distinction. A claim is considered pending while still in its appeal period, (i.e. one year from the date of the Rating Decision, or 60 days from the date of a Statement of the Case.) That is to say, there is an argument to be made by eligible veterans whose claims decided from March 14, 2016, until the presumption went into effect should be granted service connection on the basis that that were still pending before the VA. However, the effective date for benefits that are awarded based on this new presumption, will only be as of the date that the new presumption went into effect, which is March 14, 2017.
Like many things in VA law, some aspects of this can get convoluted and complicated quickly. It is never a bad idea to contact someone versed in the area for advice. This article will hopefully help to put you on the right track with the new presumptions.