A Henderson Marine veteran who has been at war with the Department of Veterans Affairs over compensation for leukemia he blames on toxic water at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, has won a battle over his medical bills. But his war to get the agency to acknowledge that the polluted water at the Marine Corps base caused his illness – and the maladies of untold other veterans — rages on.
VA officials acknowledged Friday that Richard Zaccara, 72, was wrongly billed for hospital visits and chemotherapy pills over the past three years at the VA Southern Nevada Healthcare System.
But they continued to maintain that his battle with leukemia dating to 2003 is not related to his military service, though he is on a registry of Marine veterans who were exposed to organic solvents when he trained at Camp Lejeune in 1963.
Under the 2012 Honoring America’s Veterans and Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act, military veterans who were exposed to toxic chemicals at Camp Lejeune do not need a service-connected disability to be eligible for free VA health care.
“The veteran should not have been charged copays for these health care costs and we apologize for the error,” VA officials wrote in response to a Review-Journal query. “System enhancements are currently being developed and will be deployed nationally to prevent veterans on the Camp Lejeune registry from being automatically billed for Camp Lejeune-related illnesses or conditions.”
The officials, VA spokesmen Dave Bayard, Nathanial Miller and Charles Ramey, said that Zaccara would be reimbursed for his copays — 29 in all since 2014 totaling approximately $1,750 — and that any future medical costs related to the leukemia would be covered.
While pleased by the decision, Zaccara said the fact that the VA is finally getting its billing system in line with the 2012 law is disappointing. And the fact that the agency considers his illness not service-related is “laughable,” he said.
“Haven’t they read the law? Haven’t they looked at the chemicals involved?” he asked.
While Zaccara has been able to foot the copays, others have been unable to pay their medical bills, according to U.S. Sens. Richard Burr and Thom Tillis, both R-N.C.
They estimate that from 1953 to 1987, nearly 1 million service members and their families were poisoned by Camp Lejeune’s water supply.
While affected veterans are supposed to be receiving health care, “many have lost their homes and their ability to work and financially support themselves because of the disabilities caused by the illnesses they developed from toxic exposure,” they wrote last month in a letter to the Office of Management and Budget, which is reviewing the proposed rule change that would pave the way for compensation for veterans such as Zaccara.
“Many more are teetering on the brink of losing their homes and bankruptcy. This is not just a North Carolina problem; this is a national problem,” the senators wrote.
They want the the office to wrap up its review and allow the VA to grant “presumptive disability status” for nine illnesses, including leukemia, which research by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry has linked to improper disposal of benzene, solvents and compounds such as perchloroethylene, trichlorethylene and vinyl chloride at Camp Lejeune.
SUBJECT MATTER EXPERTS
In their answer to the Review-Journal’s question about what evidence the VA has to back up its conclusion that Zaccara’s leukemia “neither occurred in nor was caused by service,” VA officials relied heavily on a VA physician they did not identify but described as “certified as a subject matter expert.”
They said his claim denial was “an appropriate decision based on the science at the time.”
As of April 2015, nearly 80 percent — 513 of 644 claims for leukemia by veterans who served at Camp Lejeune — were denied by the VA.
The VA officials said they “encouraged” Zaccara to appeal the Dec. 24, 2014, denial of VA benefits, which he did. But they didn’t explain why it took 14 months to send it to the VA office in Kentucky, which handles Camp Lejeune cases.
Until Friday, Zaccara had heard nothing about the outcome of his appeal.
“They say that I was there. They say I was exposed. And they say it was not service-connected,” he said Tuesday in an interview at his Henderson home. “That does not make any sense. It’s mind boggling. It’s humiliating. You get the sense that the VA is waiting for us to die by denying our claims or taking years to process our claims.”
Zaccara said he owes retired Marine Master Sgt. Jerry Ensminger “100 thanks,” for being in his corner and promoting a crusade for Camp Lejeune veterans and their families through his website, “The Few, The Proud, The Forgotten.”
The 2012 Senate bill mandating free VA health care for affected Camp Lejeune veterans that became law was unofficially known as the Janey Ensminger Act after Jerry Ensminger’s 9-year-old daughter, who died in 1985 of a type of leukemia that he believes was linked to Camp Lejeune’s tainted water.
In a statement Friday, Jerry Ensminger said Zaccara’s case “is nothing new in regards to the VA’s attitude and conduct regarding the Camp Lejeune water issue. I have heard from Camp Lejeune veterans from every corner of our nation who tell me that they go to their local VA hospitals to inquire about the Lejeune health care law and no one knows anything about it.”
He said the stumbling block for compensating affected veterans stems from a “negative attitude” among midlevel VA officials, who implemented the use of “subject matter experts” as an additional step in the VA’s claims process exclusively for Camp Lejeune cases.
He noted that the VA has refused to release a list of the experts so that “Congress and the affected community can vet their credentials to ensure they are truly (experts) in the area of toxic exposures.”
“One ‘so-called’ (subject-matter expert) was caught cutting and pasting verbatim phrases directly from Wikipedia citations just last year,” Ensminger wrote. “Another … stated in writing that he could find no scientific evidence that the most prevalent chemical found in Camp Lejeune’s drinking water — trichloroethylene (TCE) — causes cancer” in denying two Camp Lejeune’s veterans’ claims for kidney cancer.” TCE is a known carcinogen.
He said the VA has cited “angry veteran syndrome” in refusing to identify the subject matter experts.
“That statement in (its) own right is an insult to the men and women who serve and defend our nation,” he said.
Zaccara said whatever the reason for the benefits denials, the VA needs to make things right for the veterans who adhered to the Marine Corps motto, “Semper Fi.”
“Now the U.S. government and the VA need to step up and be faithful to us and honor our claims,” he said.