VBA needs to tighten up procedures to get poison-water benefits to Camp Lejeune veterans

For a period of some 35 years, a million people were potentially exposed to contaminated drinking water at Camp Lejeune, the Marines base camp in North Carolina...

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Maybe you’ve seen the lawyer ads on TV. For a period of some 35 years, a million people were potentially exposed to contaminated drinking water at Camp Lejeune, the Marines base camp in North Carolina. Since 2017, veterans from that era are presumed to have service-related illnesses from drinking that water. Now the Veterans Affairs Department inspector general has found the Veterans Benefits Administration hasn’t done a great job of processing those claims.  The Federal Drive with Tom Temin gets the details from the deputy IG for audits and inspections, Brent Arronte.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: And just give us a little bit of the background here of when this whole water issue took place, because it seems to be coming into the news. Suddenly, there’s more lawyers on television than there are green flies on a dog carcass?

Brent Arronte: Absolutely, there is. In the 1980s, there were contaminants found in several of the wells that provided drinking water to Camp Lejeune. The contaminants included volatile organic compounds, like trichloroethylene, perchloroethylene, vinyl chloride, benzene and other compounds. The primary sources of this contamination were found to be leaking storage tanks that were located on the Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, and an off-base dry cleaning facility. It is estimated that the contaminants were in the water supply from the mid-1950s. And in February 1985, the wells were shut down.

Tom Temin: All right, so lots of people then came through Camp Lejeune in that period besides members of the armed services, but your concern is the claims from veterans to the VBA. Correct? And give us the scope of those so far.

Brent Arronte: Sure. So we did our review this past year. And we just recently issued a report on our findings. And what it looks like to us is there were about 58,000 veterans that have filed claims for exposure to the contaminated water and Camp Lejeune. And what we found was approximately 21,000 of those claims were not processed correctly. And what I mean by that is we identified two different types of processing errors with these claims. One, which was the largest group, we found where the VBA claims processors prematurely denied benefits to veterans, because the claims were denied without all of the evidence. And the second major error that we found was with the presumptive conditions, they did not assign the correct effective date to pay the benefits. So the effective date is when a benefit is to be paid. And all of these were resulted in under payments to the veteran in the amount just a little over $13 million.

Tom Temin: Yes. And we’re talking about an older veteran population than right? If the contamination is presumed to have ended almost 40 years ago.

Brent Arronte: Absolutely. Absolutely. It is it is very much so an older population. I don’t have the arranging date. But clearly based on the data alone, you can discern that this was an older population for sure.

Tom Temin: Sure. Because the contamination, as you mentioned, started back in the ’50s. So in 2017, the VBA policy of presumptive entitlement to these benefits for certain diseases. Well, how did that come about? Was that by legislation or just VA and it’s largess?

Brent Arronte: So I think it was it was twofold. The legislation came about in March of 2017. And VA established a presumption of service connection. This presumption, though, was based on the fact that there’s a group of folks that identified the toxins and made the determination that these were toxic to humans, and that was the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. They determined that, as you indicated earlier that about 1 million individuals who resided or worked at Camp Lejeune, between the mid ’50s to the mid ’80s, could have been exposed to these contaminants. And then two months later, in March of 2017, the VA went ahead and based on that science, identified these eight conditions as being presumptive.

Tom Temin: And these tend to be cancers of various organs?

Brent Arronte: Yes, so these eight presumptive and these are serious. These are very serious diseases, adult leukemia, aplastic anemia, bladder cancer, kidney cancer, liver cancer, multiple myeloma, non-Hodgkins lymphoma and Parkinson’s disease.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Brent Arronte. He’s deputy inspector general for audits and inspections at the Veterans Affairs Department. So there were more than 20,000 claims from veterans, again, mishandled or incorrectly denied. What are your recommendations to rectify the situation?

Brent Arronte: The two recommendations we did and I think the first one is logical in my opinion, we asked the undersecretary for benefits to have all the Camp Lejeune claims processed at the Louisville regional office. And the reason we did that is the Louisville regional office had been designated as the sole office to process Camp Lejeune claims. And these processors at the Louisville regional office had created a specialized team that was familiar with the law, familiar with all the processes. And when we did our review, the claims that were processed in the Louisville regional office had around an 8% error rate, which anything under 10%, we typically don’t make a recommendation for. But those claims that were processed at the other 55, 56, regional offices had a much higher error rate almost around the 40% error rate. So to us, it just made sense. Let’s pull all these claims back in and have the Louisville Regional Office process these claims because that’s where your expertise is.

Tom Temin: And the benefits are monetary?

Brent Arronte: The benefits are monetary. Absolutely. It’s kind of twofold. To obtain health care, it typically has to start, not always, but it’s a good start to have the benefits granted, once the benefits are granted, even if it’s granted at 0%. The veteran is now entitled to health care at a VA facility. So the fact that that we found $13 million and underpayment that’s fairly significant as well. But to get the claims granted, allows the veteran to move on to the VHA and get all the other benefits at the hospitals but also education benefits. And there’s just a litany of benefits that occur once that key granting of service connection occurs.

Tom Temin: And for those among that 58,000 are some of them to our knowledge, those that might have received less than honorable discharges, and they’re therefore not entitled to VA benefits otherwise, but if they have these cancers, and were at Camp Lejeune in that era, are they then entitled to VA benefits?

Brent Arronte: That gets a little more complicated. If a veteran has a bad conduct discharge, then no, they are not entitled to veterans benefits. If the veteran has an honorable discharge, then clearly they are. The gray area happens when a veteran sometimes receives the less than honorable discharge. Sometimes VA has to administratively write them in that’s the language they approve them. Because whatever caused the discharge to be less than honorable is by VA standards does not preclude them from receiving these payments. So they’re allowed to file the claim and whatever is adjudicated is what happens.

Tom Temin: So there’s really a fairly complicated set of interrelated rules that the processors need to have. And therefore, the recommendation for where the expertise lies in the Louisville area.

Brent Arronte: That’s correct. The expertise is in Louisville, and although we did find that VBA had fairly decent training and fairly clear guidance, for whatever reason, the folks outside of Louisville just struggle. And we believe that occurred because the Louisville folks had a specified group. And they saw these claims all the time. Whereas folks that process claims outside of Louisville, they just didn’t see enough of these claims, they become proficient.

Tom Temin: Sure, and did VBA accept that recommendation?

Brent Arronte: So we have a very robust follow up process. So they did concur with the recommendation. They concurred with both recommendations. And what will happen is in 90 days, from the time that report was released, we will go out to VBA. And we will ask them to provide us their plan. If their plan does not meet the intent of the recommendation, we will not close that recommendation. And that process continues every 90 days. And then once we hit the year mark, if those recommendations are not closed, then any recommendation that has been in place and not closed for a year or longer is forwarded to the secretary

Tom Temin: Brent Arronte is deputy inspector general for audits and inspections at the Veterans Affairs Department.

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