The Department of Veterans Affairs says it will take at least a year to formulate regulations enabling Camp Lejeune veterans to receive automatic benefits for any of eight diseases linked to contaminated drinking water at the base.
The VA announced Thursday that it would grant sick veterans benefits without their having to go through the protracted and arduous claims process for receiving disability and health benefits if they had one of the illnesses and served on the base between Aug. 1, 1953, and Dec. 31, 1987.
Those illnesses are liver and kidney cancer, leukemia, non-Hodgkins lymphoma, multiple myeloma, scleroderma, Parkinson's disease and aplastic anemia (myelodysplastic syndromes).
"The notice and comment rulemaking process is lengthy, so even though this rule is a VA priority, we anticipate it will take 12 months or more to publish a final rule," VA spokeswoman Walinda West said in a written statement.
The statement was released in response to questions submitted by the Tampa Bay Times. The VA response came too late to include in an earlier Times story on Thursday's announcement.
"The devil is always in the details," said Michael Partain, who was born on the base in 1968 and later was diagnosed with breast cancer, which is rare in men. Partain sits on a panel that consults with federal scientists studying Lejeune water contamination and has been active in battling the VA to extend benefits.
"This is another year for these veterans and their families to wait while the VA squanders precious time."
The agency noted that veterans can still apply for benefits while the VA promulgates regulations. In an important concession for veterans, the VA said it would stay any claim denials for veterans diagnosed with the eight illnesses so they do not have to reapply for benefits once it finishes drafting rules.
The VA said it did not yet have an estimate of the number of veterans who would be affected by the decision to extend benefits.
Scientists believe up to 1 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 their 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.
While Thursday's decision is an important victory for veterans, critics of the agency note there are still numerous diseases that may be linked to the water pollution that are not covered, including breast and bladder cancer. Veterans with these conditions can still apply for benefits through the normal claims process.
Contact William R. Levesque at email@example.com. Follow @Times_Levesque.