WASHINGTON — North Carolina's two senators are pushing ahead on efforts to win health care for up to 750,000 Marine veterans and their families who might have suffered from water contamination at Marines Base Camp Lejeune, N.C., from the 1950s to the mid-1980s.
On Thursday, Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., called on the Department of Veterans Affairs to avoid using a maligned 2009 National Research Council study to process disability claims from Marines who say they were harmed by the contaminated drinking water.
In a letter to Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki, she said the processing time is taking too long, and she asked him to work instead with federal scientists to issue new training guidelines for workers processing the claims.
Some veterans have waited for years, she said, to have their claims settled.
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The disability claims process is important to veterans, who can receive health care from the VA if they're able to provide evidence showing that likely as not, their illness was caused by the contaminated drinking water.
Also Thursday, Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., resubmitted legislation that would require the Department of Veterans Affairs to provide health care to both veterans and their family members for illnesses associated with exposure to the poisoned drinking water. The legislation would set up a presumption that would make it easier for veterans and their family members to receive assistance.
Both senators have praised the VA's decision last fall to consolidate all its Lejeune-related claims at a regional office in Louisville, Ky.
But in Hagan's letter Thursday, she told Shinseki that the department should do more. She said the department should issue new training criteria telling claims processors not to refer to the National Research Council report, which Hagan said contains "scientific shortcomings and inaccurate conclusions."
"There needs to be adequate training going forward and good information going forward," Hagan said in an interview.
In her letter to Shinseki, Hagan said the NRC report downplayed the health impacts of trichloroethylene (TCE) and tetrachloroethylene (PCE) and that it didn't consider other poisons such as benzene and vinyl chloride.
The NRC report has been criticized by epidemiologists and by Christopher Portier, the director of the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. The agency has been working for years to develop better science on the contamination's health impacts.
Hagan urged the VA to work with ATSDR scientists in developing new training guidelines.
Burr's bill, the "Caring for Camp Lejeune Veterans Act," is the same one he submitted in the last Congress. It's his first bill in the 112th Congress; Hagan is a co-sponsor.
It would allow any veteran or family member living at Lejeune during the time of the exposed water to receive health care from the VA. The wells were shut off in the mid-1980s.
"We now have another shot at doing the right thing for the thousands of Navy and Marine veterans and their families who were harmed during their service to our country," Burr said in a prepared statement. "While we continue to seek more answers, we can minimize further suffering by allowing Lejeune veterans and their families to receive the care they need and deserve."
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