This week, when I testify along with retired Marine Master Sergeant Jerry Ensminger about the Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) response to the Camp Lejeune (N.C.) water contamination, I will once again tell the American people of the hardships these veterans and their families have suffered, not once, but twice – the first time when they were diagnosed with debilitating illnesses, often cancers, and the second time when the Department of Veterans Affairs denied their veterans benefits claims. We’ve made significant gains in how our government treats these victims of toxic exposure, but along the way, the VA has obstructed and evaded granting benefits to these individuals. Until I am convinced VA is truly putting promises and the law into action, I will continue to hold the VA leadership accountable for their failings.
Since the crisis last summer with waiting lists for VA medical care garnered so much media attention, the VA bureaucracy has continued to disappoint thousands of Marine veterans and their families on Secretary McDonald’s watch. Where the Camp Lejeune veterans are concerned, McDonald should stop touring VA facilities and refocus on making serious decisions within his agency, or he may face the same fate as his predecessor. Sadly, his statements to Congress and veterans increasingly sound like the positions of the bureaucracy he was appointed to change and are predicated on one simple request: send more money or else the system will implode.
In the case of Norman Mcilhenny, a Marine veteran who served at Camp Lejeune and who is suffering from kidney cancer, a VA clinician stated in the denial that there was no evidence the chemicals in Lejeune’s water, primarily TCE, cause kidney cancer. That evaluation was patently false. In fact, the EPA and the International Agency for Research on Cancer classify TCE as a carcinogen known to cause kidney cancer in humans. The VA clinician did agree that Mcilhenny should be granted one hundred percent disability for his hypertension, a condition that has better long term outcomes than a near fatal diagnosis like kidney cancer. Unbelievably, when VA was later shown evidence that TCE causes kidney cancer, VA removed the citation in the denial notice, then reissued it, and denied the veteran again for kidney cancer as a service connected condition. Like TCE, many of the other contaminents of Camp Lejeune’s water that veterans and families drank, washed in, and played in from 1953 to 1987 have proven to be cancer causing.
During that thirty-four year span, the Department of Defense rewarded these brave men and women by negligently poisoning them and later engaging in a massive cover-up of what we now know is one of the worst incidents of environmental exposure in our nation’s history. Since 1989, the CDC’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, ATSDR, has been investigating the water contamination at Camp Lejeune and working to produce scientifically sound studies on its effects. Last week, ATSDR provided the VA with a consolidated review of these chemicals, demonstrating that at least six human health conditions are linked to Lejeune’s poisoned water system. The science in that document is the same science Congress has urged VA to consider time and again when reviewing Lejeune veterans’ disability claims. Still, the denial rate has remained above 90 percent.
In 2012, Congress successfully passed the Janey Ensminger Act to at least ensure Camp Lejeune veterans and their families who had fallen sick from a number of cancers could receive medical care from VA for their illnesses. Now that VA is facing ATSDR’s latest conclusive report, VA has announced it will extend what are called “presumptive” benefits for certain cancers known to be caused by the toxins found in Lejeune’s water. Regrettably, while VA deliberates anew, Lejeune veterans’ claims continue to come in and those veterans are frustrated, exhausted, and debilitated by their illnesses and a bureaucracy that only now is waking from its slumber. Hopefully, VA is finally out of reasons for delays and will finally do the right thing for Lejeune veterans. Rest assured, I won’t quit until Lejeune veterans know their government won’t leave them behind.
Burr is North Carolina’s senior senator, serving since 2005. He is chairman of the Intelligence Committee and also sits on the Finance and the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committees. He introduced the Janey Ensminger Act which was signed into law in 2012.