WASHINGTON — Thousands of Marine veterans and family members across the country who once lived at Camp Lejeune, N.C., Marine base may be closer to getting health care for illnesses suffered because of decades of water contamination on the base.
A key Senate committee on Wednesday approved legislation to provide the health care — giving hope to advocates who have been lobbying on the issue for years.
But many hurdles remain: The bill still must go through the full Senate and a debt-weary House of Representatives. And though the Obama White House hasn't taken a position on the bill, the departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs both oppose it.
Beyond that, health care can't be provided until Congress appropriates money for it in a separate process.
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Still, Wednesday's vote was the farthest leap yet for the bill, called the Caring for Camp Lejeune Veterans Act of 2011, and sponsored by Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, the senior Republican on the Veterans Affairs Committee.
"It's significant. I was elated," said retired Marine Master Staff Sgt. Jerry Ensminger, of White Lake, N.C., who has lobbied Congress for more than a dozen years on the issue. His daughter Janey died of childhood leukemia in 1985 at age 9.
Wednesday's approval turned on a deal between Burr and the Veteran Affairs Committee's Democratic chairwoman, Sen. Patty Murray of Washington. The two were seen chatting on the Senate floor in the moments before a committee voice vote, presumably discussing last-minute details of the legislation.
Although Burr's bill would have required the VA to offer care for Lejeune-related illnesses, Murray thought the Defense Department — which was responsible for the contamination — should pay the bills.
Burr and other advocates agreed, but they were adamant that the VA should actually administer the care.
Murray said in a statement that Wednesday's progress was overdue but came about through "passionate advocacy" among veterans and "frank discussion" between herself and Burr.
Veterans Affairs has estimated the bill would cost $3.9 billion over 10 years, though Burr thinks it would cost less and affect fewer than 750,000 people.
"We now have another shot at doing the right thing for the thousands of Navy and Marine veterans and their families who were harmed during their service to our country," Burr said in a statement Wednesday. "While we continue to seek more answers, we can minimize further suffering by allowing Lejeune veterans and their families to receive the care they need and deserve."
Burr has worked in the past to get other senators behind his Caring for Camp Lejeune Veterans Act with little success. The previous veterans chairman, Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, opposed the bill.
Both the Veterans Affairs and Defense departments opposed the legislation at a hearing last month. Some veterans support organizations have concerns, too, fearing the bill would take money from existing needs.
But Burr and other lawmakers have said the health care is required to make up for decades of neglect by the Marines.
It is estimated a million people at Camp Lejeune may have been exposed from the mid-1950s to the mid-1980s to water that was poisoned with tricholoroethylene, tetrachloroethylene, benzene and vinyl chloride. Some medical experts have linked the contamination to birth defects, childhood leukemia and a variety of other cancers.
Similar legislation has been filed in the House by Rep. Brad Miller, D-N.C., but that bill, called the Janey Ensminger Act for the 9-year-old girl who died of leukemia in 1985, remains in committee.
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