In most cases, the VA only grants disability benefits to Veterans who can verify the connection between their disability and their military service. To qualify for benefits, most Veterans will need to prove to the VA that an injury or experience while in service directly caused the disabilities they struggle with today. Without this connection, the VA may deny a Veteran’s claim, leaving them without the benefits they need.
However, in some specific situations, the VA makes an exception to this rule. Sometimes, the VA will presume that a Veteran’s disability is service-related, bypassing the requirement for the Veteran to verify the connection between their disability and their military service.
For example, the VA presumes that Veterans who served in Vietnam during a fixed period of time were exposed to the toxic herbicide Agent Orange. Veterans who served during this time can qualify to receive disability benefits without verifying a connection between their disabilities and their military service if they have a presumptive condition.
In addition to presumed exposure to Agent Orange for many Vietnam Veterans, the VA also has several other exceptions to their standard approach to granting disability benefits. One of these exceptions is for Veterans who were exposed to contaminated water at Camp Lejeune.
On January 13, 2017, the VA released the final rule regarding presumptive service connection for medical conditions related to Camp Lejeune contaminated water exposure. Under the rule, Veterans who served at Camp Lejeune for at least 30 days from August 1, 1953 to December 31, 1987 and who have been diagnosed with any of the eight diseases listed in the rule are entitled to presumptive service connection for those conditions.
The following conditions are now considered presumptive for service connection for those Veterans who spent the requisite amount of time at Camp Lejeune:
In other words, Veterans who spent more than 30 days at Camp Lejeune can be service-connected for any of these conditions without having to prove that the disease was caused by service. The Veteran merely has to have a current diagnosis of the disease and prove he or she was at Camp Lejeune during the qualifying time period for more than 30 days.
As this blog has covered before, most people knew the final rule would cover these eight conditions even before the rule was published. However, the finalization of these eight diseases as service-connected does not preclude a Veteran from getting service connection for other diseases caused by Camp Lejeune’s contaminated water. It simply makes the process of getting service-connected easier regarding these eight diseases. Veterans can still be service-connected for other conditions, usually using medical opinions to connect their condition to exposure to the contaminated water.
The final rule was set to go into effect on March 14, 2017. However, the incoming administration’s changes raised questions about whether the rule would still go into effect on the same date. On January 20, 2017, newly-sworn-in President Trump signed an executive order issuing a government-wide freeze on any new federal regulations. While the order contained a provision exempting “critical health, safety, financial, or other national security matters,” it made advocates and Veterans wonder whether the Camp Lejeune regulation would go into effect on schedule.
On January 26, 2017, Senator Richard Burr addressed these concerns when he took to Facebook to comment about the final Camp Lejeune service connection rule. Senator Burr, who had an active role in helping Veterans affected by Camp Lejeune water contamination, stated, “Camp Lejeune Veterans eligible to receive disability compensation under the recently published VA regulation will not be affected by President Trump’s recent executive order banning new regulations. The White House has granted an exemption.”
While the White House has not officially commented on the issue, this statement from Senator Burr assures that the effective date will remain unchanged and that the rule will go into effect on March 17, as planned.
The final rule applies to claims received by the VA on or after the effective date of the final rule (March 14, 2017), and to claims pending before the VA on that date. This means that the new rule will apply to claims for the presumptive conditions which are already pending with the VA. These claims do not need to be refiled.
However, the rule does not apply retroactively to claims that are finally adjudicated. In other words, if a claim has already been denied and the appeal deadline has passed, this rule does not allow the claimant to reopen the claim with the original effective date. This is because of a regulation that does not allow liberalization of compensation rules earlier than the effective date of the act or the administrative issue.
If you have one of the eight presumptive conditions linked to Camp Lejeune water exposure, you could qualify to receive significant disability benefits from the VA. The process starts with filing a claim, either by mail or in person, at your regional VA office.
Even though the VA presumes that Veterans who served at Camp Lejeune during a certain period of time may have service-related disabilities, every Veteran who applies to receive disability benefits from the VA must go through the same process. Veterans who apply for benefits will need to take a Compensation & Pension exam, submit records and other documentation, and wait for a decision from the VA before they can receive benefits.
The VA’s Compensation & Pension exam is a normal part of the VA claims process. This exam is performed in-house by a VA doctor and helps the VA decide how they should rule regarding your claim. After your C&P exam, you will need to wait to hear back from the VA –they’ll let you know whether they have approved or denied your claim.
In some cases, the VA does not approve a Veteran’s claim to receive benefits. If your claim is denied, it doesn’t mean you have to give up. You can appeal the VA’s decision, including a denial of your claim, with the help of an attorney. An experienced attorney can stay at your side through the entire appeals process, starting at your regional VA office and moving up to higher courts if necessary.
If you appeal the VA’s denial of your claim, you can request a decision review. In a decision review, the VA re-evaluates their ruling on your claim – this process can lead to a better outcome. During the decision review process, the VA may ask for additional medical evidence or testimonials from fellow soldiers to help verify your claim. The VA may also have a senior official handle your claim, which could lead to a different ruling on your claim. If you have been previously denied disability benefits, a decision review can get you an approval.
The appeals process can go through multiple stages, starting at your regional VA office and potentially moving to higher courts. An experienced attorney can help you navigate the appeals process, giving you guidance to help you make a strong case.
The VA gives a specific rating to any Veteran that qualifies to receive disability benefits. This rating directly corresponds to the amount of monthly compensation you will receive from the VA. Sometimes, the VA gives a disability rating that is lower than a Veteran deserves. If you end up with a rating that is too low, you can make an appeal with the help of an attorney.
If you are a Veteran with a disability, getting the right rating from the VA is absolutely essential. Your disability can make it hard to work, socialize, and carry out everyday tasks, and it can be difficult to support yourself and your loved ones due to the effects of your condition. Getting financial support from the VA can be life-changing, helping you to get the stability that you need to take care of yourself and your family.
The contaminated water found at Camp Lejeune has affected many Veterans’ lives. If you were stationed at Camp Lejeune and have developed one of the eight diseases listed above, you may have the right to disability benefits.
Berry Law was founded by Vietnam Veteran and lawyer John Stevens Berry in 1965. We have been representing Veterans for decades. If you are fighting the VA for your disability benefits, we may be able to help. Contact us today.
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