Veterans Claim VA Wrongfully Turns Down Claims for Illnesses, Blaming Camp Lejeune's Contaminated Water

Veterans Claim VA Wrongfully Turns Down Claims for Illnesses, Blaming Camp Lejeune's Contaminated Water

CBS News reported on children sickened at Camp Lejeune, leading nearly two dozen veterans to come forward with claims about a broken Veterans Affairs system. CBS News looked into doctors who lacked medical expertise and veterans who fought appeals for years.

Almost a million veterans and civilians at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina were exposed to hazardous chemicals from 1953 to 1987, according to the US government. The levels were 400 times what was safe. 

Camp Lejeune was where Dave Metzler spent 34 months in the late 1950s. His daughter, Patty Metzler, said after he got out of the Marines in 1959, he began to stumble, have balance issues, and lose his hearing. 

Dave Metzler, who worked at a GM plant in North Jackson, Ohio, got ill and could not work. She said his failing health was a liability.

The fact that I no longer have the ability to support my family depressed him.

In a disability claim, Dave Metzler claims his neurological problems are related to his service at Camp Lejeune. A grant approval would provide financial assistance to the Metzlers.

The grant was denied in 2014.

Patty Metzler said he became depressed and angry. She said he tried to commit suicide once.

Veterans were first able to file disability claims regarding the contaminated water more than a decade ago, and in 2012, the VA began using subject matter experts to review those claims. CBS News found that some of these doctors did not have relevant medical experience.

Students from Yale Law School's Veterans Legal Services clinic are suing Camp Lejeune veterans for more information on the doctors reviewing their claims in 2016. 

Several of them didn't seem to meet the clinic's qualifications, according to Mike Wishnie, its director.

CBS News investigated VA records and found that some reviewers were general medicine doctors, not experts in veterans' diseases.

As a result of Wishnie using subject matter experts to review VA claims, the already-low approval rate fell even further. CBS News obtained documents and transcripts showing the rate plummeted from 25% to 5%.

CBS News obtained a year-by-year breakdown of the VA's approval rates going back to 2011. Still, these numbers show the rate dropped dramatically after the VA started using subject matter experts to review these claims in 2012. 

In 2013, approval rates dropped to 4.5%, and from 2014 to 2016, they dropped even further to 1%. As of now, 17% of Camp Lejeune claims have been approved.

The system is broken, Wishnie said. "It completely fails our veterans."
Lifelong aviator retired Lt. Col. Mark Kotnour said the VA's approach was "Deny, deny, deny until they die."

His first claim was two years ago. He was told that his pancreatic and prostate cancers were linked to his service at Camp Lejeune in 1977 by seven doctors.
In the end, the VA denied his claim, saying their expert was more persuasive. Kotnour is appealing, saying he isn't after the money but accountability. 

Kotnour is appealing, saying he is not seeking money, but accountability. "There is no guarantee" he will hear in his lifetime.

When asked why the VA would give more weight to a general medicine expert than a group of cancer specialists, Kotnour offered a pessimistic explanation.

They don't want to do the right thing, he said.

CBS News, reporting that the VA disputes this claim, claims that the doctors it uses to review veterans' claims are qualified to do so.

According to the VA, several factors contribute to the backlog, including the COVID-19 pandemic, which affected the processing of records requests at federal record centers as well as the suspension of compensation and pension (C&P) examinations.