A stalled veterans’ bill is now on track for Senate passage this week after a small change was made in a landmark program under which the Veterans Affairs Department would provide health care to people suffering from long-term effects of drinking contaminated water at Camp Lejeune, N.C.
Up to 750,000 people who lived or worked on the base from Jan. 1, 1957, through Dec. 31, 1987, would be eligible for care if they have a disability or disease linked to exposure to drinking water found to contain carcinogens.
Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., had used his Senate privileges to put a hold on the bill because it included no provision to allow VA to deny coverage even if an individual’s health problems clearly stemmed from some other cause.
DeMint and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee chairwoman, reached agreement Wednesday to add a section allowing VA to deny health care if “conclusive evidence” is available to show the individual’s disability or disease had a different cause than exposure to the contaminated drinking water at Lejeune.
This is similar to a provision that applies to other presumptive VA benefits, such as problems related to exposure to Agent Orange and Gulf War illness. Congressional aides who spoke on the condition of anonymity said these provisions are rarely invoked because the specific cause of many diseases is difficult to prove.
Diseases presumed to have a connection to the contaminated water are: Esophageal, lung, breast, bladder or kidney cancer; leukemia; multiple myeloma; myelodysplasic syndromes; renal toxicity; hepatic steatosis; female infertility; miscarriage; scleroderma; neuorobehavorial effects; and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
DeMint spokesman Wesley Denton said the senator’s “anti-fraud amendment is similar to provisions that are already part of current law with respect to other veterans’ benefits.”
Murray said that with the change, the veterans’ bill, which contains more than 50 provisions covering various health, benefits, housing, burial and insurance programs, could quickly pass the Senate. The House also would have to vote on the measure before it goes to the White House for President Obama’s signature.
The bill, the Honoring America’s Veterans and Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act, was approved June 21 by negotiators from the House and Senate veterans’ affairs committees, but DeMint had blocked Senate consideration of the measure because of his concerns about fraud and about the long-term cost of the Lejeune-related health care.
The DeMint-Murray compromise that allows the measure to move forward came just minutes before Murray was to give a speech on the Senate floor complaining about DeMint delaying a bill that would help veterans and their families. As she was waiting to give her prepared remarks, she noticed DeMint in the back of the chamber and the two began discussing the issue. Agreement was reached in about five minutes, according to aides.
DeMint’s concerns about the long-term costs of the Lejeune-related health care were not resolved by the agreement, but he has released his hold on the bill, Denton said.