- Associated Press - Thursday, December 17, 2015

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) - More veterans would be eligible for disability benefits if they were exposed to contaminated drinking water while assigned to Camp Lejeune in North Carolina under a proposal announced Thursday by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

A statement from the department said VA Secretary Robert McDonald decided on the proposal after talks with environmental health experts at the Veterans Health Administration and the Department of Health and Human Services Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

McDonald’s proposal also would expand benefits eligibility to Reserve and National Guard personnel who served at Camp Lejeune from Aug. 1, 1953, through Dec. 31, 1987. They would be presumed to have been exposed. This would make them eligible for VA disability compensation and medical care for any of the presumptive conditions, and their surviving dependents would be eligible for dependency and indemnity compensation and burial benefits.

“The water at Camp Lejeune was a hidden hazard, and it is only years later that we know how dangerous it was,” McDonald said in the statement. “We thank ATSDR for the thorough review that provided much of the evidence we needed to fully compensate Veterans who develop one of the conditions known to be related to exposure to the compounds in the drinking water.”

McDonald proposes creating a presumption of service connection for kidney cancer, liver cancer, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, leukemia, multiple myeloma, scleroderma, Parkinson’s disease and aplastic anemia/myelodysplastic syndromes.

VA spokeswoman Victoria Dillion said while a decision on the plan is pending, the department will continue to grant all claims for disabilities that it can be determined on a case-by-case basis were caused by exposure to the Camp Lejeune contaminants.

Dillon said that if a claim for service connection for one of the proposed presumptive conditions would be denied under current procedures, the denial will be stayed until the VA issues its final regulations. The department will announce when the regulations are final and presumptive benefits can be awarded.

“About time,” said Jerry Ensminger, a retired drill instructor whose 9-year-old daughter died of leukemia in 1985.

“It’s taken me almost 19 years,” he said. “This is one more step in the process for me. This continues until complete justice is served.”

Ensminger credited North Carolina Sens. Richard Burr and Thom Tillis, as well as former Sen. Kay Hagan for their efforts on behalf of the stricken military members. Burr introduced legislation that required the VA to provide health care to veterans and their family members who have certain diseases and conditions as a result of exposure to the water at Camp Lejeune.

“The VA is finally granting some justice to veterans who were exposed to contaminated drinking water while assigned to Camp Lejeune,” Tillis said. “The victims of this tragedy have waited far too long to receive disability benefits.”

Mike Partain, who was born at Camp Lejeune and developed breast cancer, said work needs to be done to add his disease, which has gone into remission, onto the list.

“This was a long time coming, but it’s an important first step,” Partain said. “As long as the VA remains open and continues to work with the community and with ATSDR, we look forward to progress in this matter.”

Health officials believe as many as 1 million people may have been exposed to tainted water between the 1950s and when drinking water wells at the Marine base were closed in the 1980s. The wells were contaminated by leaking fuel tanks and an off-base dry cleaner.

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