WASHINGTON — Families of Marines stationed at Camp Lejeune, N.C., three decades ago might receive a sliver of military-sponsored health care to address diseases caused by drinking and bathing in toxic water.
Legislation passed by a key Senate committee Thursday would require the Department of Defense to offer health care to spouses, children and other family members who were exposed to contaminated water at the base in the 1970s and '80s.
U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., opposed the bill, saying it takes the wrong approach and will unfairly give false hope to thousands of struggling families.
He and U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., have co-sponsored a competing bill that makes the Veterans Affairs department responsible for health care. They say the VA would do a better job.
Their bill, offered Thursday as an amendment, failed along partisan lines in the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, with Democrats on the committee unanimously opposed. (Burr is the committee's top Republican. Hagan does not sit on the committee.)
Instead, the committee approved legislation that requires the military's health care program, called Tricare, to treat those diseases directly linked to the exposure.
It's unclear yet how much that would cost, and how the military would decide exactly which ailments to cover. Studies have yet to provide direct links between the toxins and a variety of cancers and other ailments among Camp Lejeune’s former inhabitants.
Burr and Hagan argue that the Department of Defense can't be trusted to take care of Marines and family members to whom it has spent decades denying a connection.
"I can't in good conscience agree to give these brave men and women a false hope that they'll get health care," Burr said. "Do you really believe the Department of Defense will accept responsibility for this health care when it still doesn't accept responsibility for the contamination?"
He pointed out that the U.S. Department of Navy has been ordered by Congress to pay for a scientific study on the potential link between exposure and disease, but that hasn’t happened.
And he threatened to exercise what power he could until his amendment is passed.
"There will not be a Navy nominee considered on the Senate floor until this is resolved," Burr said.
Thousands of Marines and their family members living at Camp Lejeune were exposed to tap water contaminated with trichloroethylene (TCE), tetrachloroethylene (PCE), dichloroethylene (DCE), benzene and vinyl chloride.
Military veterans already are entitled to health care through the VA system. At issue is where family members also might receive care.
Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki warned the Burr/Hagan bill could apply to half a million military dependents and cost the VA $4.16 billion over 10 years.
Committee Chairman Daniel Akaka of Hawaii, who sponsored Thursday's legislation, said he agreed with Burr that families exposed to contaminated water should receive health care from the federal government.
But he and other Democrats on the committee argue that the Department of Defense has to be held responsible for problems it created, instead of being allowed to foist health care coverage onto the Veterans Affairs Department, which already struggles with funding.
That view is endorsed by several major veterans groups.
"Family members would be better served under the Department of Defense health care program," Akaka said.
He argued that the issue should be handled on the Senate Armed Services Committee, and recommended that he and Burr meet with that committee’s leadership, Sens. John McCain and Carl Levin, to discuss Camp Lejeune.
His bill, unlike Burr's, also addresses contamination at another base, Naval Air Facility Atsugi in Japan. There, families were exposed to air-borne and water-borne toxins from an incinerator.
Burr, meanwhile, vowed to fight on in his cause for Lejeune veterans.
He said he will continue to tie his and Hagan's amendment to other bills moving through the Senate floor --"to everything appropriate and inappropriate" -- until he can get President Barack Obama to sign his proposal into law.