Getting Veterans (VA) Disability for Toxic Water at Camp Lejeune
Overview of Camp Lejeune
Water contamination at Camp Lejeune existed for decades and exposed thousands of people to serious health risks. Specifically, from 1953 to 1987, everyone living or working at the United States Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune in North Carolina was exposed to a variety of toxins in the water. Service members living on the base at the time, along with their families, were unknowingly drinking contaminated water, as well as cooking with it, bathing in it, and washing their clothes in it. Veterans became sick with a list of health problems presumed to be connected to their military service.
What Toxic Chemicals Were Found and Where Did They Come From?
The toxic chemicals that were found at Camp Lejeune are known as Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) and make up products such as dry-cleaning solvent degreasers. Essentially, a nearby dry-cleaning company was using these solvents and eventually, the VOCs contaminated the groundwater. There were also industrial spills and waste disposal sites contributing to the contamination.
Among the VOCs are additional classes of chemicals, including the following:
- PCEs – perchloroethylene
- TCEs – trichloroethylene
- Trans-1,2-DCE – trans-1,2-dichloroethylene (i.e., byproducts of the degrading PCE, TCE, benzene chemicals)
- Vinyl chloride
These are the main chemicals that are particularly hazardous and that were found to be linked to a number of debilitating health conditions.
According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, for most of the months within that 34-year period, on-base water wells contained limits above the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) guidelines for all of the chemicals listed above. Contamination in these water wells was first discovered in 1982. Three years later, in 1985, those water wells were finally shut down.
What is Being Done for Veterans and Family Members Exposed to Toxic Water at Camp Lejeune?
In 2012, Congress passed the Honoring America’s Veterans and Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act. This legislation granted some benefits to families who were exposed to the contaminated drinking water. Specifically, it provided healthcare benefits to veterans who served on active duty at Camp Lejeune as well as family members who also might be eligible for healthcare cost benefits. In 2017, Congress passed an additional statute that allowed for service-connected compensation for veterans based on a presumption of exposure.
Medical Benefits for Family Members Exposed to Contaminated Water at Camp Lejeune
Camp Lejeune contaminated water exposure is very unique insofar as Congress and VA awarded healthcare benefits prior to establishing a presumption of service connection.
How Do Camp Lejeune Family Members Qualify for VA Medical Benefits?
In order to receive reimbursement for costs incurred during the treatment of qualified conditions, veterans and family members must first apply to the Camp Lejeune Family Member Program by completing VA Form 10-10068: Camp Lejeune Family Member Program Application and submitting it to VA. In addition, VA will require you to submit evidence proving your eligibility for the program, such as:
- Marriage license or birth certificate that shows a dependent relationship to a veteran who was stationed at Camp Lejeune
- Proof that you lived at the base for at least 30 cumulative days between August 1, 1953 and December 31, 1987 (e.g., base housing records, military orders, utility bills, or tax forms)
- Medical records proving that you paid medical expenses for one of the qualifying conditions above, “respective to the following date ranges”:
- Dependents who lived at Camp Lejeune between January 1, 1957 and December 31, 1987 can be reimbursed for out-of-pocket medical expenses incurred on or after August 6, 2012
- Dependents living at Camp Lejeune between August 1, 1953 and December 31, 1956 can have medical expenses incurred due to a qualifying condition reimbursed for care received on or after December 16, 2014
- VA Form 10-10068b: Camp Lejeune Family Member Program Treating Physician Report completed by your doctor.
It is important to note that qualifying members are not eligible to receive VA disability compensation for any conditions associated with Camp Lejeune water contamination. Family members are only eligible to receive healthcare benefits.
What Benefits Are Offered? Are There Restrictions?
There are 15 total conditions, some of which are also on the presumptive list (see section below), that VA acknowledges as linked to the contaminated water exposure at Camp Lejeune; VA offers free healthcare for these conditions. It is important to note that VA has a list of exposure-related conditions for disability compensation purposes (listed in section below) and a list of exposure-related conditions for healthcare purposes. These lists are different, and VA does not offer disability compensation for every condition for which it offers healthcare. The list of conditions eligible for healthcare benefits, such as reimbursement for out-of-pocket healthcare costs, include the following:
- Bladder cancer
- Breast cancer
- Esophageal cancer
- Female infertility
- Hepatic steatosis
- Kidney cancer
- Lung cancer
- Multiple myeloma
- Myelodysplastic syndromes
- Neurobehavioral effects
- Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma
- Renal toxicity
Effective Dates for Healthcare Benefits
The effective dates for healthcare benefits depend on when a veteran served at Camp Lejeune. If a veteran served between 1957 and 1987, then the effective date for when they are entitled to healthcare benefits (e.g, out-of-pocket costs) is August 2012. However, if a veteran served between 1953 and 1956, the effective date becomes December 2014. This is an important difference to be aware of.
Veterans Benefits for Exposure to Contaminated Water at Camp Lejeune
Presumption of Exposure
Generally speaking, a presumption of exposure indicates that a veteran has qualifying service (i.e., served in a specific area during an established timeframe) and as a result, VA presumes that they were exposed to certain harmful chemicals or environmental hazards. Presumptions of exposure help replace the requirement for service connection that requires veterans to have an in-service event or symptom that caused their current condition. In these instances, VA counts the in-service exposure as the event.
VA’s List of Presumptive Conditions Associated with Camp Lejeune Contaminated Water Exposure
VA has established a list of presumptive conditions for service members that served at Camp Lejeune for at least 30 cumulative days from August 1, 1953 through December 31, 1987:
- Adult leukemia
- Aplastic anemia and other myelodysplastic syndromes
- Bladder cancer
- Kidney cancer
- Liver cancer
- Multiple myeloma
- Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma
- Parkinson’s disease
In order to receive presumptive service connection, you must show that you served during that time period for at least 30 days (consecutive or non-consecutive) and have a current diagnosis of one of the above-mentioned conditions. Importantly, because VA will presume that one of the above conditions is related to your service, you do not need to prove that your illness is connected to your military service. Service members who served at Camp Lejeune and are experiencing other health conditions can still apply for VA disability compensation but must prove that their conditions are connected to their military service by providing a medical nexus.
Direct Service Connection – Veterans Do Not Need to Meet Presumption to Receive Benefits
Veterans who filed claims for conditions related to the contaminated water exposure at Camp Lejeune after March 2017 will qualify under the presumption outlined above. In order to receive presumptive service connection, you must show that you served during that time period and have a current diagnosis of one of the above-mentioned conditions. However, if veterans filed their claims for service connection before March 2017, they are going to have to establish the three elements of direct service connection: (1) a current diagnosis of the condition; (2) an in-service event, injury, or illness; and (3) a medical nexus opinion linking the in-service incurrence to the current diagnosed condition.
Evidence That Can Help Your Exposure Claim
Evidence for Camp Lejeune exposure claims can include the following:
- Service personnel records (i.e., establishing that you served at Camp Lejeune during the specified time period)
- VA medical records and Compensation & Pension exam results
- Private medical records
- Lay statements
Importantly, there was a significant amount of research conducted regarding water contamination at Camp Lejeune and associated medical conditions. Such research set the stage for the legislation to pass, which now allows for the presumptions of exposure and service connection. As such, this research can also be used as evidence in claims for direct service connection.
Tips for Your VA Claim Based on Camp Lejeune Exposure
It is important to note that veterans can also apply for service connection for conditions that are not listed on VA’s presumptive list. While those conditions will require veterans to establish the elements of direct service connection outlined above, it is still possible that VA will award benefits. In this case, it will be important to provide medical evidence as to how their non-presumptive condition is related to their Camp Lejeune water contamination exposure.
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