A Sarasota man who served at Camp Lejeune in the 1950s and is now dying of breast cancer has finally won Department of Veterans Affairs benefits after a bruising fight with the agency.
The VA reversed an earlier denial of a claim filed by Marine veteran Tom Gervasi after a blistering letter sent to VA Secretary Erik Shinseki by U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, R-North Carolina. The letter accused the VA of using outdated or suspect evidence to deny Gervasi's claim alleging he was poisoned by contaminated drinking water.
"I find the evidence used in Mr. Gervasi's case flawed and perplexing," Burr said in the March 29 letter. "As a result of this case, I am now growing concerned about the quality and types of evidence VA is selecting to adjudicate claims for Camp Lejeune veterans."
VA officials in Washington, D.C., said they could not speak about Gervasi's claim because of privacy restrictions.
U.S. Sens. Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio of Florida also intervened in Gervasi's case, which had taken on renewed urgency as his health has deteriorated.
One obstacle in Gervasi's claim was that he served at Lejeune before the 1957 cutoff when scientists said the base's water was first contaminated with carcinogens. But the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry revised that start date earlier this year and now says Lejeune's water contamination could have started as early as 1948.
Gervasi's VA case is one of 30 male breast cancer claims filed by Camp Lejeune veterans. About 18 have been approved.
"I love life," Gervasi, 76, a retired police officer from New York told the Associated Press recently. "I'm not ready to die. You know, I believe in God. When God wants to take me, God will take me. But I'm fighting to stay alive."
Burr's letter was unusual in its biting criticism of evidence the VA had been using to deny the claims of Gervasi and other veterans. Burr's office said it is unclear if Burr's letter resulted in the VA's reversal.
Among Burr's criticisms of the VA's earlier denial of Gervasi's claim:
• The VA relied on a breast cancer study from the United Kingdom that dealt with occupation exposures to carcinogens during working hours. Gervasi and other veterans, Burr said, were exposed for longer periods because they lived on the base.
• The VA relied on a scientifically "outdated" 1997 ATSDR toxicology profile of a chemical found in Camp Lejeune drinking water in deciding Gervasi wasn't exposed to dangerous levels of the contaminant.
• The VA relied on a 2009 National Research Council review of research on carcinogens found at Camp Lejeune that Burr said "did not rigorously analyze data" and contained a peer review that was not made public. "Therefore its scientific merit is questionable," the letter said.
"As new data becomes available on the contamination at Camp Lejeune, I believe you must ensure that the data your department references and uses to adjudicate veterans' claims comports with the most current science," Burr wrote.
William R. Levesque can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org