Members of New York's congressional delegation promise action after an exclusive NY1 investigation. Our Michael Herzenberg found that the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has been denying disability benefits to thousands of sick veterans despite evidence of a link between their illnesses and toxic drinking water on a major military base.
New York Sen. Charles Schumer reacts, saying he's going to talk to the VA right away. "Now that it's pretty clear there were contaminants in the water, the Veterans Administration has to bend over backwards to help our vets," said the Democrat.
"This is a disgrace and it ought to be changed," Republican Rep. Dan Donovan told NY1.
"This is a living, breathing American tragedy," Congressman Hakeem Jefferies said.
Democrats and Republicans denounced the Department of Veterans Affairs for denying disability benefits to thousands of veterans who say they were exposed to toxic drinking water.
"The American government has a responsibility to these men and women to do everything possible to provide them with the assistance necessary to deal with their present medical condition, many of whom are suffering from a wide variety of deadly forms of cancer," Jefferies said.
For three decades, toxic chemicals leaked into the groundwater at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina from industrial sites inside the Marine base and a nearby dry cleaner.
At least 21,000 vets are being helped under a recent law that covers some health care costs for anyone who drank or bathed in the water and now suffers from any of 15 severe health problems, mostly cancer.
But as NY1 reported, the VA rejected 89 percent of thousands of disability claims from people with medical conditions that the agency acknowledges might be linked to the contaminants.
"They served their country. They answered the call for their country," Donovan said about the sick veterans. "It's now time for the country to answer their call."
In December, the VA decided to eliminate obstacles to disability benefits for vets with eight conditions, but said the change won't be enacted for at least a year, "because we need public comment on the science and the criteria we propose, to avoid risk of a large number of re-adjudications."
"It should be much quicker," New York’s senior senator explained, "the way we sped up the process for Agent Orange. And for other diseases that might be linked to Lejeune, even though they haven't specified those yet, they ought to treat these veterans right away. The burden of proof should be on the VA to prove it didn't happen, rather than the veterans to prove that it did."
Democrats Schumer and Jefferies said they will look into proposing legislation; Republican Congressman Donovan said he may use an appropriations bill to order the VA to act.
We'll stay on top of these lawmakers to see if they follow through.