An exclusive NY1 investigation revealed that the Department of Veterans Affairs denies 89 percent of disability claims where there is "evidence of an association with the contaminants in the water" at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, an issue that impacts thousands of veterans and civilians across the country, including here in New York. In his latest report, NY1's Michael Herzenberg gets reaction from the VA and a lawmaker.
A NY1 investigation found that the VA denies disability benefits to nearly nine out of 10 veterans who say contaminated water at the famed Camp Lejeune Marine Base made them sick and that there is evidence of an association with the contaminants in the water.
"We continue to see bias on the part of the VA not to award disability benefits," said North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr.
Both Burr and North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis say they’ve been pressuring the VA to change.
“The only conclusion one can come to,” Burr said, “is that some in VA believe that it's better to have those folks die before the payments made."
The VA responded with a statement, saying, "We have met with Sen. Burr and will continue to do so to address his concerns and questions. VA claims examiners have no financial motivation in their decisions and in fact are encouraged to respect a philosophy that VA grant if it can and deny only if it must. VA advocates for Veterans, Servicemembers, and their survivors. More than 54 percent of the people that work in VA’s Veterans Benefits Administration (the administration responsible for non-healthcare benefits) are Veterans themselves."
Craig Unterberg doesn't see it that way. The New York City attorney is now fighting kidney cancer and lived on the North Carolina base as a child.
"It's taking too long, and this is an urgent situation there are just some people that are so sick," he said about the VA's process.
900,000 veterans and their families may have been exposed to chemicals from 1953 to 1987 that seeped into the groundwater from industrial sites inside Camp Lejeune and a dry cleaner just off the base.
In 2012, a law made medical care less expensive for those who drank the water and suffer from any of 15 medical conditions.
In December, the VA decided to eliminate obstacles to disability benefits for vets with eight conditions, but its implementation will take at least a year.
Mark Cifelli is a Marine veteran who served at Camp Lejeune in the 1980s. He, with the support of his new bride, is fighting to survive Stage 4 colon, lung and liver cancer. He says his doctors believe the contaminated water at the Marine base is the cause and that the VA rejected his application for disability benefits three times.
Cifelli spoke to NY1 from his suburban Buffalo home.
"There's no reason to make people wait any longer. I might not be around here," he said.
Burr says the VA could do it quicker, pointing to Vietnam. The U.S. used the deforester Agent Orange back then, sickening thousands of our service members. Burr says the VA implemented a fast-track for disability benefits in three months.
Burr says VA officials told him they'd look into that.
The VA told NY1 it is bound by the rule-making time frames established by law.