The Department of Veterans Affairs announced plans on Monday to begin revising how it grants disability benefits for veterans who lived at Camp Lejeune, a Marine Corps base in North Carolina, during the 30-plus years that toxic chemicals tainted the base’s drinking water.
The VA’s move to establish “presumptive status” for these exposed veterans — that is, to presume that specific illnesses diagnosed in certain vets are a result of their military service — should eventually make it easier for them to win benefits.
The change comes amid scrutiny over the growing rates of disability claim denials since the 2013 launch of the agency’s subject matter experts (SME) program. Veterans, along with advocates and scientists, have speculated that the program may be part of an effort to deny claims and evade the responsibility to care for veterans sickened by environmental exposures while serving their country.
“Is the VA allowed to just willy-nilly change the claims process to meet its needs?” said retired Master Sgt. Jerry Ensminger during a conversation with The Huffington Post Monday.
As HuffPost reported last week, prior to 2013 — when the VA hired 22 experts to begin reviewing and offering opinions on veterans’ cases — the agency was approving about 1 in 4 disability benefit claims filed by Camp Lejeune veterans. Since the agency began consulting with the experts, that figure has plummeted to 1 in 20. Gerald Cross, chief officer for the VA’s Office of Disability and Medical Assessment, told HuffPost in July that his agency stood by its SMEs. A spokeswoman for the VA said Tuesday that Cross had recently retired, although HuffPost was not able to confirm the specific date.
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