Hundreds of thousands of people were exposed to toxic chemicals in the water at Camp Lejeune from the 1950s to the late 1980s. Two water treatment facilities were polluted by chemicals such as trichloroethylene (TCE), benzene, perchloroethylene (PCE), and vinyl chloride. The VA has been providing health care and reimbursement for medical costs to veterans and their family members stationed at Camp Lejeune with 15 illnesses related to the toxic water exposure, but they had not awarded presumptive status to any condition…. until now. The VA has officially recognized that certain diseases are associated with the contaminated drinking water at Camp Lejeune. The following conditions are now entitled to presumptive service connection for veterans exposed to contaminated water at Camp Lejeune:
- Adult leukemia
- Aplastic anemia and other myelodysplastic syndromes
- Bladder cancer
- Kidney cancer
- Liver cancer
- Multiple myeloma
- Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma
- Parkinson’s disease
The first thing to understand is what presumptive service connection means. Presumptive service connection means the VA will assume a condition is related to military service. Typically, the VA will require evidence of a link between a veteran’s condition and their military service. This is not the case with presumptive service connection. So, if a veteran that was exposed to the contaminated water at Camp Lejeune is diagnosed with one of the above listed presumptive conditions, they will not have to prove any link between their condition and service. In effect, with presumptive service connection, the link is already established.
Once service connection is established, it is important to understand how the VA rates the condition in order to ensure you receive the correct rating. The rating assigned to a service connected condition is supposed to reflect the level of severity of the disability in terms of how much the condition interferes with the veteran’s ability to work. Each condition has a four digit number assigned to it called a diagnostic code (DC). Once you look up the relevant DC for your condition, you will be able to see the specific rating criteria that the VA looks at when assigning a rating percentage for that condition. For example, let’s look at a veteran with leukemia. If the veteran’s leukemia is active, it is rated according to the criteria set forth in DC 7703. DC 7703 states:
There are many different types of leukemia, but all are rated the same. If it is active and undergoing treatment, then it is rated at 100%. This 100% rating continues for 6 months after the last treatment. Then the condition will be reevaluated and re-rated. If the leukemia is not active or being treated, then it is rated as anemia or aplastic anemia, whichever gives the higher rating.
In our example, let’s say the veteran’s leukemia was active for 1 year. He will receive a 100% rating for that year, plus 6 months after his last treatment. The rating criteria for leukemia then says the veteran’s condition must be reevaluated and re-rated under the criteria for anemia (DC 7700) or aplastic anemia (DC 7716). If the rating criteria for anemia would give the veteran a higher rating, he would then receive a rating according to the criteria set forth in DC 7700 which is based on the amount of hemoglobin in the blood and symptoms directly related to it. This is a great example of the need to look out for secondary conditions that you may be entitled to additional compensation for. If a service-connected disability causes a new condition, that new condition is entitled to service connection as well. So, going back to our example, the veteran with anemia, post active leukemia, developed neuropathy as a result of his anemia. He is entitled to service connection for the neuropathy, which will be rated separately from his anemia.
As you can see, ratings for service-connected conditions can be very complex, but they are also very important. The VA often makes errors when they assign ratings to conditions, and these errors may mean the difference between hundreds or even thousands of dollars in benefits. Now that the VA has officially recognized conditions entitled to presumptive service connection for Camp Lejeune veterans, those veterans can shift their focus from proving service connection, to ensuring they get the right rating for their conditions.