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Vote on Lejeune contamination expected this month

WASHINGTON — Sen. Richard Burr expects his legislation to help victims of Camp Lejeune's water contamination will get a vote in the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee this month.

If it passes, the vote would mark the furthest the bill has gotten in the past two years. Burr, the top Republican on the panel, has worked to get other senators behind his Caring for Camp Lejeune Veterans Act with little success. The bill would require the Veteran Affairs Department to offer health care to veterans and their family members if they lived at Camp Lejeune from 1957 to 1987 and have illnesses associated with the toxic water. It is co-sponsored by Sen. Kay Hagan, a Greensboro Democrat.

Both the Veterans Affairs and Defense Departments oppose the legislation. Some veterans organizations have concerns too, saying it could take money from existing needs.We have to overcome some of the obstacles out there if we intend to get it out of the U.S. Senate, but I think we can do that," Burr said in an interview Thursday.

Burr's bill fell victim two years ago to a maneuver by then-Veterans Affairs Chairman Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, who offered an alternative bill in committee to send health care responsibilities to the Department of Defense. Burr wants the VA to take care of ill veterans and their family members.

Although up to a million people are thought to have been exposed to the water, Burr thinks about 28,000 people or fewer would need health care.

Burr's bill was one of about three dozen reviewed at a hearing Wednesday on Capitol Hill.

Sen. Patty Murray, R-Washington, the committee's chairwoman, makes the final decision about whether a bill gets a full committee review and vote, known as a mark-up. But Burr has significant influence as the panel's ranking member.

And Murray, though not offering her opinion on Burr's legislation, indicated during the hearing Wednesday that she thought the issue was an important one and should be addressed.

"I think Senator Murray is committed to trying to find a solution," Burr said. "I think she agrees that this is a population that we should be responsible for."

After the hearing, Murray summoned retired Marine Jerry Ensminger, who had testified to the committee, to speak privately with her about the contamination. Ensminger, of White Lake, N.C., lived at Camp Lejeune and has been a strong advocate for victims of the contamination. His daughter died at age 9 of leukemia, which he links to the poisoned water.

Burr's bill now puts the bill for health care with the VA, but he said today he would be fine with having the Department of Defense pay the bills as long as the Veterans Affairs Department handles the actual health care.

Although the VA has said the bill would cost $3.9 billion over 10 years, Burr thinks that's too high. He expects to have a revised cost estimate and some ways to pay for the bill by the time a mark-up takes place later this month.

A companion bill in the House, sponsored by Democratic Reps. Brad Miller of Raleigh and John Dingell of Michigan, is still in the Veterans Affairs Committee there.