Department of Veterans Affairs Encouraged to Approve Toxic Exposure Claims

During a hearing on Capitol Hill this past Tuesday, senators stated the the US Department of Veterans Affairs must learn how to favor veterans when deciding to approve claims for illnesses and diseases related to environmental exposures and contaminations.

Service members have been exposed to contaminants in locations ranging from the South China Sea to Irap, and the Arabian Desert to Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, but the VA proceeds to participate in “passive-aggressive rebuttal of scientific findings” in order to deny veterans health care and compensation, according to Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C.

While speaking to the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, Burr requested its members to increase their oversight of the VA’s handling of toxic exposure claims, adding that while he is encouraged by VA Secretary Bob McDonald’s recent efforts to improve the department’s understanding of exposure-related illnesses, he believes more should be done.

“To this day I remain appalled at the way the United States government has treated these families,” Burr said in regards to the 1 million plus residents of Camp Lejeune who consumed contaminated drinking water at the location from the mid-1950s through 1987. “Our government rewarded them for their service by negligently poisoning them.”

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., have sponsored a bill, the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act, which would grant benefits to hundreds of thousands of sailors who served on aircraft carriers, destroyers, and other large Navy ships while in the waters of Vietnam and have illnesses related to the exposure of Agent Orange, a toxic defoliant.

Currently, medical care and compensation is provided for veterans who served in the “brown water” Navy, which includes the smaller boats and watercraft that operated within the inland waterways. The Veterans Administration does not acknowledge the exposure of the veterans who served on the larger craft offshore.

The VA continues to argue that those sailors were not directly exposed to Agent Orange, so their illnesses would not be service-connected.

The Institute of Medicine released a study in 2011 stating that there is not enough evidence to determine if the “blue water” veterans were exposed or not. Gillibrand noted that a study from the Australian Veterans Affairs Department found that it’s veterans were exposed to Agent Orange when the ships distilled seawater contaminated with the chemical for onboard usage.

Gillibrand says the blue water vets are unnecessarily suffering due to “arbitrary bureaucracy.”

She also stated, “instead of treating every Vietnam veteran who suffers from disease caused by Agent Orange, the VA is only treating those who stepped on Vietnam’s soil or served on boats on inland waters.”

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., have co-sponsored one bill that would require the VA to create a center for researching the health conditions of the descendants of troops who may have been exposed to toxic chemicals.

Blumenthal insisted that the VA expedite the process for recognizing the health consequences of exposure to toxic chemicals.

“Here’s what we know about the modern battlefield: There are all sorts of toxic substances, many more than the lay person can imagine. [It’s] dangerous even for those who didn’t serve in combat,” claimed Blumenthal.

The Veteran’s Administration considers several birth defects in children of Vietnam era vets as service-connected, including spina bifida for children of male vets and 18 health conditions for children of mothers who served in that combat zone.

The Blumenthal-Moran bill would require VA to examine the health of military offspring beyond the Vietnam era, including the Persian Gulf War as well as the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts.

David McLenachen, VA acting deputy secretary for disability assistance, says the Veterans Benefits Administration is making effort to improve its determinations for claims related to the exposures, which include contracting with the Institute of Medicine and other scientific bodies to study the issues.

McLenachen stated the VA uses the research to alter its policies as needed and recently cited examples such as the recognition of Air Force Reservists who flew contaminated C-123 aircraft from the Vietnam War, veterans exposed to mustard gas granted service-connection, as well as a recent announcement that rules will be changed to establish presumptive service connection for conditions associated with the polluted water at Camp Lejeune.

Those changes most likely would have not came to light if it wasn’t for the small groups or individual veterans that fought for recognition.

It was also noted by Gillibrand that the Australian study was performed after officials noticed the high rates of cancer and illness among the blue water Vietnam veterans, and that the VA rarely attempts to resolve such issues.

Retired Marine Master Sgt. Jerry Ensminger testified on Tuesday for the seventh time about the Camp Lejeune environmental disaster that claimed the life of his 9-year-old daughter, Janey, in 1985. “Agents with VA have expended more effort, time and money devising methods to deny Camp Lejeune victims their rightful benefits rather than providing them.”

It was acknowledged by McLenachen that the process is slow. He stated, “as the science develops, so must our policy […] we need to learn how to streamline this process.”

The Archuleta Law Firm handles injury, death, and veterans medical malpractice claims under the Federal Tort Claims Act. We handle claims in all 50 States and Worldwide. Our focus is helping Veterans, and the families of Veterans and Military Service Members in their claims involving Veterans (VA) Hospitals, Doctors and Clinics and Military Hospitals, Doctors and Clinics. We handle claims involving the Department of Veterans Affairs, the U.S. Army, the U.S. Navy, and the U.S. Air Force.

Source: Military Times