The Department of Veterans Affairs recently released a proposed rule that would extend disability benefits to certain former service members who were exposed to contaminants at Camp Lejeune and later developed Parkinson's disease.
Last week, the Foundation's Unified Parkinson's Advocacy Council, comprising representatives from the leading state, regional and national PD organizations, sent a letter to the VA regarding the proposal. This rule would widen access to benefits that can improve quality of life, and it acknowledges evidence linking environmental exposures to Parkinson's.
The full text of the letter can be found below.
Director, Regulation Policy and Management (00REG)
Department of Veterans Affairs
810 Vermont Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20420
Re: RIN 2900-AP66 -- Diseases Associated with Exposure to Contaminants in the Water Supply at Camp Lejeune.
Dear Director of Regulation Policy and Management,
The Unified Parkinson's Advocacy Council applauds the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) for its effort to provide increased benefits to veterans, former reservists and former National Guard members through the proposed rule, "Diseases Associated with Exposure to Contaminants in the Water Supply at Camp Lejeune."
The Unified Parkinson's Advocacy Council is led by The Michael J. Fox Foundation and comprises representatives from the leading national, regional and state Parkinson's organizations. We gather field-wide input on public policy issues impacting the Parkinson's community and work to shape policies that support patients, caregivers and researchers.
The Council agrees with the VA's decision to amend its adjudication regulations relating to presumptive service connection to add certain conditions, including Parkinson's disease (PD), associated with contaminants present in the base water supply at U.S. Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune (Camp Lejeune).
We thank you for addressing this important issue that can positively impact the health of individuals who have served our country. As explained below, we encourage you to consider atypical parkinsonisms under the broad category of PD. We are pleased to hear that individuals serving 30 days nonconsecutively at Camp Lejeune will be eligible for benefits, as well as people with pending cases at the time of the final rule. We encourage you to ease the administrative burden for individuals refiling claims so they may quickly access these critical benefits. And we ask you to consider the families stationed at Camp Lejeune who may be living with disabilities as a result of their loved one's service.
III. Secretary's Proposal
B. Presumptive Conditions
The Council is pleased that the VA has decided to include PD as a presumptive condition. Within the category of Parkinson's disease, we strongly urge the VA to include atypical parkinsonisms. These include several conditions in which an individual experiences some of the motor signs and symptoms of Parkinson's disease, including tremor, slowness, rigidity (stiffness) and walking/balance problems, but does not have PD.
Some of the diseases associated with atypical parkinsonisms include corticobasal degeneration, dementia with Lewy bodies, multiple system atrophy and progressive supranuclear palsy. These neurodegenerative conditions share similar characteristics with PD, including protein clumping in the brain. They also progress quickly and can significantly affect quality of life. Because of this, the Council asks the VA to include these broader conditions under the category of Parkinson's disease when making disability benefits decisions.
C. Exposure Requirements
The Council applauds the VA for including both consecutive and nonconsecutive days in the calculation of the 30-day requirement. This important measure ensures veterans, former reservists and former National Guard members exposed to contaminants during multiple shorter stays at the base will receive the disability benefits they deserve.
As noted in the proposed rule, "the available scientific evidence does not provide specific data on exposure levels." In the absence of those facts, we believe the consecutive/nonconsecutive requirement will allow the maximum amount of exposed individuals to benefit from this proposed rule.
IV. Application of Rulemaking to Previously Adjudicated Cases
The Council thanks the VA for allowing the proposed rule to apply to claims pending when the final rule is published, allowing more exposed individuals to quickly access disability benefits.
We understand the Secretary has no explicit statutory authority to apply the proposed regulation retroactively. The Council supports the decision to allow exposed individuals living with one of the eight additional service-connected conditions to file a new claim to obtain a new determination of entitlement under the final regulation. We ask the VA to ease the administrative burden for these individuals so those who qualify may efficiently receive their benefits.
The Council also asks the VA to consider family members who were present at Camp Lejeune as a result of their loved one's service. Family members living at Camp Lejeune for at least 30 days (consecutively or nonconsecutively) from August 1, 1953 to December 31, 1987 also could be impacted by any of the eight additional diseases. The Honoring America's Veterans and Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act of 2012 (H.R. 1627) already recognizes the effect of contaminants on family members. Although these individuals were not enlisted in the military, they performed a duty to their country as a result of their loved one's service. They should be entitled to benefits if they have been disabled due to their time at Camp Lejeune.
Finally, the Council thanks the VA for shortening the comment period for this proposed rule to 30 days in recognition of the urgent financial and medical needs of many individuals living with one of the eight additional service-connected diseases. We applaud you for taking patient needs into account and finalizing this rule as soon as possible.
Please do not hesitate to contact Ted Thompson, senior vice president of public policy at The Michael J. Fox Foundation, at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-638-4101 ext. 382 with any questions.
The Unified Parkinson's Advocacy Council
The Michael J. Fox Foundation
American Parkinson Disease Association
Brian Grant Foundation
Dallas Area Parkinsonism Society
Davis Phinney Foundation
Houston Area Parkinson Society
Northwest Parkinson's Foundation
The Parkinson Alliance/Parkinson's Unity Walk
Parkinson Association of Alabama
Parkinson Association of the Rockies
Parkinson Voice Project
The Parkinson's Foundation
National Parkinson Foundation
The Parkinson's Foundation
Parkinson's Disease Foundation
Nina Mosier, MD
Power for Parkinson's
W. N. (Bill) Wilkins
Wilkins Parkinson's Foundation
Wisconsin Parkinson Association