President Barack Obama signed a bipartisan bill Monday that, for the first time, offers veterans and family members government-funded hospitalization and medical services for 15 specific ailments presumed linked to drinking water contamination at Camp Lejeune, N.C., over 31 years, ending in 1987.
The bill has several controversial features, including a mandate that the Department of Veterans Affairs, rather than the military and its Tricare program, provide the care. The estimated cost for the first five years is $162 million to treat several thousand victims who are expected to qualify.
To be eligible, patients must show they spent at least 30 days at Lejeune from Jan. 1, 1957, to Dec. 31, 1987, or they were in utero during that period with mothers residing on base. They also must have one or more of the following: cancer of the esophagus, lung, breast, bladder or kidney; leukemia; multiple myeloma; myleodysplasic syndromes; renal toxicity; hepatic steatosis; female infertility; miscarriage; scleroderma; neurobehavioral effects or non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.
Family members of veterans also must show they have exhausted all other possible claims or remedies available, against other parties, for payment of care including employer or family health insurance plans.
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Up to a million Marines and family members assigned to Lejeune could have been exposed to contaminated water, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry estimates. Some of these families for years have blamed cancers, rare diseases, birth defects and early deaths on drinking water fouled by known carcinogens, including trichloroethylene, benzene and vinyl chloride â€" poisons they say were ignored for years by base officials.
After years of fighting the Navy Department, organizing fellow victims and lobbying Congress, advocates including retired Marine Corps Master Sgt. Jerry Ensminger see only a partial victory in the enactment of the Honoring America's Veterans and Caring For Camp Lejeune Families Act of 2012.
The short title for the portion of the law dealing with Lejeune families is the Janey Ensminger Act. It honors Ensminger and his daughter who, at age 9 died in 1985 from acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a rare ailment linked to the toxins found in water at Lejeune.
Victims and families don't fully understand yet what Congress has passed, Ensminger said in a phone interview. But they do know â€œthis bill is a big step forward. It's the first step in achieving justice.â€