The Department of Veterans Affairs announced Thursday it will grant automatic benefits to veterans of Camp Lejeune if they suffer one of eight diseases, a decision that throws a lifeline to potentially thousands of people sickened by the base's formerly polluted drinking water.
The decision is a striking contrast to the VA's overall 93.5 percent denial rate of claims for health and disability benefits filed by veterans of the North Carolina Marine Corps base, VA figures show.
"This is good news," said Karl Saffell, 60, of Lithia, who served at the base from 1977 to 1979 and had a VA claim denied for non-Hodgkins lymphoma, one of the diseases now covered.
"I try not to say bad things. But the claims process has not been one that helps people. It's designed to make people leap barrels and overcome obstructions to get benefits."
The VA announcement is an admission the scientific evidence overwhelmingly points to these diseases being caused by pollutants found in Camp Lejeune water. So veterans who lived on the base get benefits without having to go through the arduous and prolonged claims process, which can take years.
Those illnesses, called "presumptives" in the parlance of the VA, are liver and kidney cancer, leukemia, non-Hodgkins lymphoma, multiple myeloma, scleroderma, Parkinson's disease and aplastic anemia (myelodysplastic syndromes).
"The water at Camp Lejeune was a hidden hazard, and it is only years later that we know how dangerous it was," VA Secretary Robert McDonald said in a news release.
Scientists believe up to a million people may have been exposed to a toxic brew of chemicals, including several carcinogens, that make the Lejeune contamination perhaps the worst ever mass exposure to polluted drinking water in the United States. The contamination stretched more than 50 years, ending in 1987, and involved residents now scattered across the nation.
About 14,000 Lejeune veterans and family members live in Florida, the second highest total in the nation behind North Carolina, according to Marine Corps figures.
The base's water was tainted with industrial solvents and components of fuel from a variety of sources, including underground fuel tanks that leaked.
VA officials did not return messages seeking comment. One official asked the Tampa Bay Times to email questions, but did not respond when the newspaper did so.
What remains unclear is when these new rules go into effect. It won't be immediately since the VA must first promulgate regulations, which may take several months.
The decision covers veterans who lived at the base from Aug. 1, 1953, to Dec. 31, 1987. It does not affect family members.
Veterans who suffered an illness not on the list can still apply for benefits. But they must go through the normal VA claims process. Veterans who have already been denied benefits are expected to be eligible to reapply.
The VA has taken heavy criticism from Lejeune veterans for an antagonistic claims process they say looks for any excuse to deny benefits. Donald Burpee, 57, of Marion County, who was stationed at Lejeune in 1975, died of kidney cancer in July. Days after his death, the VA said his cancer could not be tied to the base's water, said his wife, Brenda, who will now qualify for widow's benefits.
Up to Nov. 30, VA figures show the agency had denied 86 percent of Lejeune claims based on kidney cancer.
"We worked so hard to get the claim approved before he died," Brenda Burpee said. "So this is very bittersweet. My husband felt the veterans should get the benefits they deserved for being poisoned."
Jerry Ensminger, a former Marine Corps drill instructor whose 9-year-old daughter, Janey, died of leukemia in 1985, is the leader of a group of veterans and family members who have waged a prolonged battle against the VA and Marine Corps to win benefits for people dubbed "Poisoned Patriots" by Congress.
He credited several lawmakers, including U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, North Carolina Sens. Richard Burr and Thom Tillis, and former North Carolina Sen. Kay Hagan, with helping force the VA's hand. Ensminger said he hopes the VA can be persuaded to add other illnesses that may be linked to the contamination, including breast and bladder cancer.
"Basically, we had to beat them into doing this," Ensminger said. "We're not done yet."
Michael Partain, a Winter Haven resident who was born on Lejeune in 1968 and is the son of a Marine officer, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007, which is exceedingly rare in men. Partain, who has worked with Ensminger, said the VA's decision demonstrates that its claims denial rate is not supported by either science or common sense.
"This is a long time coming and is a welcome first step on behalf of the VA," Partain said. "Hopefully the VA will work with the community instead of against it in getting these veterans taken care of."
Contact William R. Levesque at [email protected] Follow @Times_Levesque.