The Department of Veterans Affairs expects a surge of compensation claims totaling more than $2.2 billion from veterans exposed to toxic water at Camp Lejeune, N.C., but nothing compared to the "tidal wave" of cases that came out of the Agent Orange class-action suit.
After years of lawsuits and appeals, acts of Congress and amendments since the contaminated water at the Marine Corps base was confirmed in the 1980s, the VA will begin accepting claims March 14 for disabilities stemming from eight presumptive conditions.
A final hurdle to the compensation process emerged with the inauguration of President Donald Trump and his order blocking new federal regulations, which appeared to override rules approved in the last days of President Barack Obama's administration.
However, the office of Sen. Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican, said last week, "The White House has granted an exemption. This means the Camp Lejeune regulation will go into effect on March 14, 2017, as scheduled."
All of the Lejeune claims initially will be handled by the VA's Louisville, Ky., Regional Office (RO), Thomas Murphy, VA’s acting under secretary for benefits, said at a House Committee on Veterans Affairs (HVAC) subcommittee hearing last week.
"Ideally, we want to keep them in the one RO" in Louisville, where a Center of Eexcellence has been set up to deal with presumptive claims, Murphy said. "But if they can't handle the volume, we're going to have to train another and expand it, so we'll have to keep a very close eye on that."
Rep. Tim Walz, a Minnesota Democrat and ranking member of the HVAC, questioned whether Louisville is ready to cope with the claims. Walz asked Murphy, "You're ready to adjust to it, but you don't anticipate anything near the disruption that the Nehmer claims were?"
Walz was referring to the spike in disability claims stemming from the Nehmer class-action suit on the effects of aerial spraying of Agent Orange in Vietnam; it contributed to VA's 2013 backlog of 613,000 initial disability claims.
The claims backlog (in which a rating decision has exceeded 125 days) had been reduced to 97,553 as of last week, according to VA, although veterans groups point out that there were another 433,000 cases in various stages of appeal as of Jan. 1.
In response to Walz, Murphy said the Lejeune claims are not expected to approach the volume of claims that were filed in the wake of the Agent Orange rulings. "No, nothing like that at all," he said. "The Nehmer claim was a tidal wave, and this is going to be a real small one by comparison."
Disability benefits would supplement VA health care already being provided to eligible veterans who were stationed at Camp Lejeune for at least 30 cumulative days between Aug. 1, 1953, and Dec. 31, 1987. Veterans will have to submit evidence of their diagnoses and service information to be eligible.
The new rule covers active-duty, Reserve and National Guard members who served at Lejeune during the designated period for 30 days, and who developed one of eight presumptive conditions: adult leukemia, aplastic anemia, bladder cancer, kidney cancer, liver cancer, multiple myeloma, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma or Parkinson's disease.
The March 14 date for the filing of claims is a milestone for retired Marine Master Sgt. Jerry Ensminger, who has advocated for decades for Camp Lejeune veterans and their families through his website, "The Few, The Proud, The Forgotten."
Ensminger was stationed at the base when his daughter, Janey, was born in 1975. She died of a rare form of leukemia at age nine. "This has been a hard, long slog," Ensminger told The Associated Press of the long fight for compensation, but "this is not the end of the issue."
"I can't tell you the level of frustration that has engulfed me over these years," he said. "There's no doubt that the people of Camp Lejeune were poisoned."
In August 2012, Ensminger was in the Oval Office as President Barack Obama signed the Janey Ensminger Act, providing for VA health care for those affected by the Lejeune contamination.
Last year, VA urged veterans assigned to the base during the designated 34-year period to begin filing disability compensation claims for the eight presumptive conditions. "The water at Camp Lejeune was a hidden hazard, and it is only years later that we know how dangerous it was," then-VA Secretary Bob McDonald said at the time.
In 1989, Camp Lejeune was listed by the Environmental Protection Agency as a toxic Superfund site "because of contaminated groundwater, sediment, soil and surface water resulting from base operations and waste handling practices."
From 1953 to 1987, drinking water wells at the base were contaminated with benzene, trichloroethylene, vinyl chloride and other petroleum contaminants from leaking storage tanks and an off-base dry cleaner, federal environmental health experts said.
Last month, VA published a rule in the Federal Register to establish that "veterans, former reservists, and former National Guard members, who served at Camp Lejeune for no less than 30 days (consecutive or nonconsecutive) during this period, and who have been diagnosed with any of eight associated diseases, are presumed to have incurred or aggravated the disease in service for purposes of entitlement to VA benefits."
The rule continued, "Under this presumption, affected former reservists and National Guard members have veteran status for purposes of entitlement to some VA benefits."
In publishing the rule Jan. 17, McDonald said, "We have a responsibility to take care of those who have served our nation and have been exposed to harm as a result of that service. Establishing a presumption for service at Camp Lejeune will make it easier for those veterans to receive the care and benefits they earned."
The Navy has estimated there was a potential population of about 900,000 active-duty, Reserve, and National Guard members at Camp Lejeune from 1953 to 1987, but the population potentially eligible for disability claims is expected to be about 23,000.
According to VA, 1,419 compensation claims had been filed as of Jan. 1 but were put on hold to await the new rule for the March 14 date. The VA has estimated the benefits for the first year of compensation claims at $379.8 million and a total of $2.2 billion over five years.
The new rule is "historic," according to VA, in the sense that it is one of the few known instances in which there is eligibility for disability claims for exposures in a stateside garrison, rather than on deployment to a war zone, as was the case with the Agent Orange claims.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.