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Wednesday, April 27, 2016
Vets Clinic Sues VA for Withholding Information on Toxic Water Disability Claims
On April 27, 2016, veterans groups The Few, The Proud, The Forgotten, and Vietnam Veterans of America filed suit under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to compel the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to produce records on the Camp Lejeune Subject Matter Expert (SME) program. The organizations are being represented by The Veterans Legal Services Clinic at Yale Law School.
The VA created the SME program in 2012 to evaluate disability compensation claims. Since that time, the VA has largely ignored requests for information about the program, according to the clinic.
Between 1953 and 1987, nearly one million veterans, their families, and civilian employees at Camp Lejeune, a Marine training base in North Carolina, were exposed to toxic drinking water in one of the worst contaminations in U.S. history*. Many have since developed illnesses like kidney, bladder, and breast cancer, and many have lost their lives as a result. Thousands of veterans have applied for disability compensation for diseases related to their exposure to Camp Lejeune’s toxic water, but the VA has denied the vast majority of these claims, according to the clinic.
The SME program tasks an anonymous group of clinicians with issuing medical opinions on the disability compensation claims of Camp Lejeune veterans. Since the VA created the SME program, the grant rate for these claims plummeted from approximately 25% to 8%, according to VA statistics.
From the limited information publically available, veterans groups and medical professionals have identified concerns about the clinicians’ credentials, methods, and expertise. For example, SME program clinicians have repeatedly relied on scientific reports that VA officials admit are outdated. In at least one case, the VA relied on a report by an SME program clinician who cut and pasted a Wikipedia entry to provide a medical opinion on a rare type of cancer**.
Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), ranking member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said, “The SME program has been using incorrect and outdated information. The alarming drop in the grant rate of Camp Lejeune claims deserves real, penetrating scrutiny.”
Veterans groups submitted a FOIA request to the VA in December 2015, seeking records on the SME program, including policies, procedures and objectives; fiscal impact; data and statistical information; and training records. The VA has not responded to this request.
“There is something seriously flawed when an agency created to assist and care for our nation’s veterans exerts more time and effort to deny them the help they deserve,” said retired Marine Master Sergeant Jerry Ensminger, founder of The Few, The Proud, The Forgotten and a father who lost his daughter at age nine to childhood leukemia linked to exposure to Camp Lejeune’s toxic water.
“Why does it take an act of Congress or a lawsuit to move the VA into action on Camp Lejeune? Our veterans and their families served this country without question. They deserve full transparency about their exposures to toxic chemicals and how the VA handles their care and determines their benefits,” said Mike Partain, co-leader of The Few, The Proud, The Forgotten and member of the Camp Lejeune Community Assistance Panel.
Rick Weidman, Executive Director for Policy and Government Affairs, Vietnam Veterans of America, added, “Hiding behind anonymity, particularly in vital decisions that affect veterans and their families, is unacceptable. The VA’s actions in toxic exposure cases are not scientific, rational, or equitable to those of us who have sacrificed for our country.”
“The SME program remains a black box. The VA’s failure to respond to our clients’ FOIA request is just the latest example of foot-dragging and misdirection in response to inquiries about the SME program,” said Rory Minnis ’17, a former Marine and law student intern at the Veterans Legal Services Clinic at Yale Law School.
About The Few, The Proud, The Forgotten: Founded in 1997, TFTPTF is dedicated to protecting the rights of Marine veterans, civilian employees, and families who were exposed to toxic drinking water between 1957 and 1987 at Camp Lejeune, the Marine Corps base in North Carolina.
About Vietnam Veterans of America: Founded in 1978, VVA is the only national Vietnam veterans organization congressionally chartered and exclusively dedicated to Vietnam Era veterans and their families. The organization has 75,000 members and 635 chapters nationwide. VVA is committed to promoting and supporting the full range of issues important to veterans of all eras of service under its founding principle, “Never again will one generation of veterans abandon another.” One of VVA’s advocacy priorities is addressing the impact of toxic exposures on veterans and their families.
* INSTITUTE OF MEDICINE, REVIEW OF VA CLINICAL GUIDANCE FOR THE HEALTH CONDITIONS IDENTIFIED BY THE CAMP LEJEUNE LEGISLATION 11 (2015)
** Arguments raised during the Camp Lejeune Community Assistance Panel convened by The Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry on December 4, 2015.http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/sites/lejeune/capmeetings.html