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Military Environmental Hazards Bill Faces HurdlesRobert O'Dowd Salem-News.com
Congressional jurisdictional issues and Defense Department resistance to accepting responsibility for harming veterans and dependents are major impediments to passing a final bill and ultimately providing medical care.
(WASHINGTON D.C.) - There’s a definite need for more “adult supervision” in Washington. Yesterday, the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs passed an original bill, “Examination of Exposures to Environmental Hazards During Military Service Act of 2010.” The vote was 9 to 5 along party lines. Nine democrats voted for the bill while 5 Republicans against it. Senator Jim Webb (D, VA), a Navy Cross Marine veteran, did not vote.
Jurisdictional issues between the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs and the Senate Armed Services Committee need to be resolved before the bill can come up for a vote on the Senate floor. The Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs has jurisdictional authority over the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) while the Senate Armed Services Committee has jurisdictional authority over the Department of Defense (DOD). If this sounds a little bit like a turf battle between two gangs, you get the general idea.
To those of us living outside of the Washington beltway, Senator Akaka’s bill sounded like a victory for the victims of Camp Lejeune’s well water contamination and for many others from military installations across the country.
Senator Akaka’s bill directs the DOD to provide TRICARE coverage to veterans and dependents injured by Camp Lejeune’s well water contaminants.
The bill requires Camp Lejeune veterans and dependents to pay TRICARE health insurance premiums, which makes them eligible for hospital care, medical services, and nursing home. The bill requires that this health care be provided within 90 days of the enactment of the bill. However, directing DOD to provide health benefits to Camp Lejeune water contamination survivors is a little bit like leading a horse to water. You can lead the horse to water but you can’t make it drink. DOD has resisted all attempts to accept responsibility for the harm caused to veterans and dependents from environmental hazards.
The thirteen page Akaka bill provides for the establishment of an Advisory Board appointed by the President with input from the VA and DOD. The Advisory Board would provide advice to the VA and DOD on matters relating to the exposures of current military, veterans and their dependents to environmental hazards on military installations. Except for Camp Lejeune, the Advisory Board has the authority to recommend to DOD the payment of compensation or to offer TRICARE to the victims of environmental exposure. The bill requires the Advisory Board, with a supporting staff of environmental scientists, to evaluate cases of potential environmental hazards at military installations. The bill does not require the Advisory Board to evaluate the exposures at Camp Lejeune but to compile a list of the Agency for Toxic Subsances Abuse (ATSDR) in order to complie a list of individuals exposed to environmental hazards at that base. The bill requires DOD to offer TRICARE (health insurance) to affected Lejeune veterans and dependents. However, DOD continues to insist that there’s no scientific evidence to support that environmental hazards at Camp Lejeune were the cause of diseases and deaths of veterans and their dependents and would likely drag their feet on implementing this requirement.
If you think that DOD’s response is something like that taken by scientists employed by tobacco industry insisting that cigarettes do not cause cancer, you won’t be far off. The health effects of exposure to trichloroethylene (TCE) and other Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) include cancer and other serious diseases. In fact, a recent CNN report on Camp Lejeune found over 50 male Marine veterans with breast cancer, a very rare disease among males.
I like Senator Akaka’s approach since it covers exposure at all military installations and includes an Advisory Board with access to scientific expertise to evaluate claims for environmental exposures. If the Advisory Board’s scientific evaluations supported exposures to environmental hazards to warrant compensation, then a recommedation would be made to DOD to offer financial compensation or TRICARE health benefits. But, getting DOD to comply with Advisory Board’s recommendations may be nearly impossible.
Veterans Service Organizations, including the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Disabled American Veterans, Paralyzed Veterans of America, and Vietnam Veterans of America support Senator Akaka’s bill. The concern with the possibility of overwhelming the VA Medical Care System with a million Camp Lejeune veterans and dependents appears to the major factor for the VSO’s support of TRICARE.
According to a Congressional source, Senator Akaka’s numbers on the Lejeune exposed population are 1 million, which is the high end of the exposed population, not those actually affected adversely. VA’s own numbers indicate approx 25,000 dependants would potentially be eligible and CBO estimates only approximately 8,000. The VA would get funding to expand its services to meet this increased need, but it’s unclear how TRICARE would deal with the same. As noted the Lejeune contamination does not need an Advisory Board or a Science Panel. However, the inclusion of an independent Advisory Board and Science Panel would be beneficial to an honest evaluation of environmental exposures at the other military installations.
The need for a unbiased system to evaluate environmental hazard claims from multiple military installations is supported in the following comments from Senator Akaka: “The Committee will also consider legislation to address circumstances where service members and their families may have been exposed to environmental toxins. The Committee held a hearing in October regarding potential exposures in a variety of circumstances, from the Ranking Member’s home-state to Japan and the Middle East. This is a serious and complicated issue: serious because of the charges that have been made about potential exposures, and complicated because of the difficulty of establishing an unbiased system to scientifically determine whether specific exposures are likely to have caused specific injury to current or former service members and their dependents.”
“The Committee Print, as introduced, would develop a system to review possible military exposures and provide care for those who are likely to have been exposed. In crafting the requirements to provide health care for affected individuals, I have sought to balance the burden between VA and DoD. Certainly VA can share in the responsibility to care for affected troops and veterans. However, requiring VA to treat an unknown number of military dependents – estimates for one exposure site alone indicates half-a-million dependents would be eligible –threatens to come at the expense of disabled veterans. As we discuss potential amendments to this section of the Committee Print, I urge my colleagues to consider whether we are willing to jeopardize the quality of care for wounded veterans in order to relieve DoD – who already provides care for dependents – of that responsibility.”
Senator Richard Burr (R, NC), the Committee on Veterans Affairs’ Ranking Member, has been an outstanding supporter of Camp Lejeune veterans and dependents. Senator Burr sponsored S-1518, “Caring for Camp Lejeune Veterans Act of 2009.” S-1518 would require the VA to provide hospital care, medical services, and nursing home care to veterans who were stationed at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, while the water was contaminated at Camp Lejeune.
The major advantage of S-1518 is that the VA provides the medical services to eligible veterans and dependents without the need to pay for insurance premiums and involve a reluctant DOD in the process. Because of the potential to overwhelm the VA Medical Care system, the Veteran Service Organizations (VSOs) do not support S-1518, according to an informed Congressional source. Their concern is that care for Camp Lejeune water victims may overwhelm the VA and prevent needed care to wounded warriors.
One obvious drawback of S-1518 is that its scope is limited to Camp Lejeune. In contrast, Senator Akaka’s bill recognizes that exposure to environmental hazards affects a number of military installations. In fact, EPA data shows over 130 military bases on the National Priority List (EPA Superfund). Creating separate legislation for multiple military installations makes little sense.
If ever there was a need for bipartisanship, it’s with the resolution of exposures to environmental hazards and the resultant adverse health effects on veterans and their families. Given the reluctance of DOD to willingly participate in this process, it makes sense to use the VA.
If the VA Medical Health Care System is used to provide these services, an Advisory Board like the one described in Senator Akaka’s bill could effectively be used to screen environmental hazard claims with help from a science advisory panel with backgrounds in environmental exposure or environmental exposure assessments, health monitoring and related fields. This would eliminate the DOD hurdle and put the program into the VA system where it belongs.
For veterans and dependents exposed to environmental hazards and who suffer from the consequence, the Congressional jurisdictional issues and DOD reluctance to accept responsibility for health effects of contamination is one more cross for them to bear. King Solomon, “Where are you?”
"We’re the Battling Bastards of Bataan
By Frank Hewlett, 1942
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