WASHINGTON — Legislation that could offer health care to hundreds of thousands of victims of water contamination at Camp Lejeune, N.C., continues to have trouble gaining traction on a debt-wary Capitol Hill.
Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, who sponsored the bill, would like to see it approved in the coming month by the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, where he's the top Republican.
"I hope my colleagues will agree that this is the right thing to do," Burr said.
But the bill is controversial. At a hearing in the committee Wednesday, both the Defense Department and the Department of Veterans Affairs said they oppose the legislation, calling it overbroad and possibly unnecessary.
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And some of the nation's veterans service organizations say they have serious problems with it, too.
Burr's bill, the Caring for Camp Lejeune Veterans Act of 2011, would require Veterans Affairs to pay for the health care of any veteran or family member whose ailment can be linked to water contamination at Camp Lejeune. He submitted it during the previous Congress as well.
It was one of about three dozen veterans-related bills discussed at the meeting. Committee members will decide which should be brought forward for detailed discussion and a committee vote, called a mark-up.
Up to a million people are thought to have been exposed to contaminated water from the mid-1950s through 1987.
On Wednesday, Veterans Affairs estimated the bill would cost $3.9 billion over 10 years, though Burr thinks it would cost less and affect less than 650,000 people.
The Department of Defense said Wednesday there isn't enough science to support Burr's broad approach to health care coverage, and it says the bill creates inequities by not including civilian employees and government contractors who also might have worked on base.
The VA went further, saying the bill is unfair because it's impossible to know all the veterans who spent just short periods at Camp Lejeune on temporary assignment.
Other veterans organizations agree that the health care must be provided, but they say that the Defense Department — not the VA — should pay for the health care.
Raymond C. Kelley, a lobbyist for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, said the government has a "moral obligation" to provide care. But, he added, that should come from the Defense Department.
And the Disabled American Veterans worries about "rationing" of health care, since Burr's bill doesn't include new funding for the VA.
Alone in fully supporting the bill was the American Legion, whose 2.4 million members make it the nation's largest veterans service organization. In his testimony, lobbyist Jeff Steele pointed out that the base's water was contaminated with known carcinogens, and that federal scientists have refuted military reports that mischaracterize the current science on the contamination.
"The VA is better set up because of their extensive network to handle the health care claims of the people affected," Steele said later in an interview. "They will have spread out around the country."
The committee's last chairman, Sen. Daniel Akaka of Hawaii, never acted on the bill because he, like many, thought it should be handled within the Defense Department.
Some advocates had hoped that the new chairman, Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, would give more support. Her spokesman, Matt McAlvanah, wouldn't say this week where she stands on the bill — only that she'll work with Burr "to find a workable solution on this issue."
"Chairman Murray is very sympathetic to this issue and has long been dismayed by DoD's very poor record of tracking and treating exposures," McAlvanah said.
If Burr's legislation is approved in committee, it would then go forward to the full Senate. Similar legislation is being considered by the House Veterans' Affairs Committee.
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