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VA should care for Lejeune vets, lawmakers say

Apr. 23, 2012 - 04:24PM   |   Last Updated: Apr. 23, 2012 - 04:24PM  |  
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Key lawmakers are appealing directly to President Obama to get the Veterans Affairs Department to provide free health care to veterans who were exposed to contaminated drinking water at Camp Lejeune during a 30-year span that ended in 1987.

Their appeal comes after VA while acknowledging the drinking water in barracks, housing, schools, hospitals and offices on the base was contaminated has refused to provide health care until there is a clear link to adverse health effects. This might not be determined before 2014.

Millions of people who lived and worked at Camp Lejeune could have been affected by the industrial and toxic wastes, but years of study about the possible duration and level of contamination have provided only "limited" and "suggestive" evidence that exposure for more than 20 years might have resulted in issues such as kidney cancer.

In February, Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., the House Veterans Affairs Committee chairman, proposed VA could at least provide health care for Camp Lejeune veterans by creating a special health care category that covered them. The cost of care could be paid, Miller suggested, by $5 billion in excess health care funds the VA discovered when preparing the 2013 budget.

Miller's proposal, which would have applied only to veterans and not to family members who might have lived or visited Lejeune, was rejected by VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, who said in an April 9 response to Miller that it was premature to provide health care to everyone who served at Lejeune from 1957 until 1987.

Shinseki suggested veterans could still file for disability claims if they felt they had a service-connected disability. About 1,000 Camp Lejeune veterans have filed disability claims, he said, and 238 were found to have service-connected disabilities "for some reason" that did not depend on a scientific link to consuming contaminated ground water.

Miller and other lawmakers are not ready to take no for an answer. In a joint letter to President Obama, sent Friday, the leaders of the House and Senate veterans' affairs committee are renewing Miller's suggestion.

"The VA has existing resources which could be reserved without derailing other initiatives," the letter says, asking that a portion of excess funds resulting from overestimating health care costs be allocated "to provide care for sick Camp Lejeune veterans and family members."

The letter is signed by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee chairwoman; Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., the ranking Republican on Murray's committee and a longtime advocate of government health care for Lejeune veterans and families; and by Rep. Bob Filner, D-Calif., ranking Democrat on Miller's committee "There is enough scientific evidence already that warrants giving the benefit of the doubt to those who need help now," the joint letter says.

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