U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., Monday joined a group critical of the credentials and conclusions of an alleged cadre of experts retained by the Department of Veterans Affairs to vet medical claims connected to toxic chemicals in the drinking water at Camp Lejeune.
Between 1953 and 1987, Camp Lejeune, a Marine Corps base in North Carolina, was contaminated with volatile organic compounds including trichlorethylene, perchlorethylene, benzene and vinyl chloride.
The Veterans Legal Services Clinic at the Yale Law School has filed an extensive Freedom of Information request on behalf of The Few, The Proud, The Forgotten; Vietnam Veterans of America; and the Connecticut State Council of Vietnam Veterans of America over use of some two-dozen anonymous doctors in its Subject Matter Expert program that weigh in on the claims.
Blumenthal, in a conference call with the press, said he was concerned with the lack of transparency as to the policies governing this program, the methodology used and the training standards required of these doctors.
He said the information sought "is the lifeblood of credibility and legitimacy and it should be disclosed. There is a broader point here, which is that toxins and potential poisons in the water at Camp Lejeune are only one example of toxic substances that may affect our warriors on the battlefield and in other arenas."
Rory Minnis, a former Marine and law student intern at the Yale Law School, said the SME program was started in 2012.
Minnis said of the estimated 10,000 claims that have been brought, 25 percent were granted before the SME was put together. That figure has now dropped to 8 percent.
Nearly 1 million veterans, their families and civilian employees were exposed to the contaminated drinking water, according to studies, and many became ill with rare cancers.
It is the position of the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry that "past exposures from the 1950s through February 1985 to trichloroethylene (TCE), tetrachloroethylene (PCE), vinyl chloride, and other contaminants in the drinking water at the Camp Lejeune likely increased the risk of cancers (kidney, multiple myeloma, leukemias, and others), adverse birth outcomes, and other adverse health effects of residents (including infants and children), civilian workers, Marines and Naval personnel at Camp Lejeune."
Minnis said they are questioning the credibility of the clinicians when one cited Wikipedia as a reference and others have used "dated and discredited" medical data. He said they have been unable to get policy documents or evidence that would show how they weigh factors to answer a medical claim.
"The VA has taken every effort to make sure the SME program remains a black box," Minnis said.
The VA did not respond to a request for comment.
Minnis said the veteran never meets with the doctor reviewing his or her case, nor do they receive a copy of the report.
Minnis said several organizations have asked for a working bibliography of the medical data the SME uses and they have been refused. He said there have been reports that the doctors relied upon a discredited 2009 report that the VA acknowledges was incorrect.
Minnis said the VA has referred to the SME program as the model for the future in determining legitimacy of medical claims tied to exposure to toxic chemicals, which makes the information driving it all the more important.
The Yale Law student said the VA now has 20 days to produce relevant records or they will ask the courts to compel their release.
Retired Master Sgt. Jerry Ensminger, who was stationed at Camp Lejeune with his family during the time the water was contaminated, said he has been trying to get information since a connection was made in 1997 between the chemicals and certain cancers.
His youngest daughter was diagnosed with leukemia at age 6 and died when she was 9.
Ensminger, who founded The Few, The Proud, The Forgotten, said he saw two denials for claims of kidney cancer written by the same SME doctor, which stated he had done a comprehensive review of the meta-analysis of two decades of scientific studies and could find no evidence that PCE (tetrachloroethylene) causes any cancer.
Both denials were written in 2015, but Esminger said the U.S. EPA in 2011 reclassified PCE as a known human carcinogen based on evidence that it causes kidney cancer. He said non-Hodgkins lymphoma was also linked to PCE. The National Toxicology Program also reclassified PCE as causing kidney cancer,
"Camp Lejeune is a guinea pig for this program. This program was developed not to serve veterans. This program was developed to deny veterans their rightful benefits," Ensminger charged.
Blumenthal said there is "solid, substantial evidence" there are clinicians connected to the program using incorrect and outdated information in issuing denials to medical claims.
"This is a classic example of the need for citizens to know," Blumenthal said of the FOI request.
The senator said when service members sign up to serve their country they know they will likely be put in harm's way. Blumenthal said this shouldn't mean this also applies to their family members.