Obama to sign Lejeune bill at Oval Office signing ceremony on Monday

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 3, 2012 

President Obama will sign a bill on Monday to give health care to thousands of sick Marine veterans and their families who were exposed to contaminated water at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, N.C., according to a White House official.

Obama will host a signing ceremony at the Oval Office. The time of the ceremony and guest lists have not been released. But several guests from the battleground state are expected to attend.

Mike Partain, who survived breast cancer after living on the base, helped lead the fight for health care along with retired Marine Jerry Ensminger. They said they were invited and plan to attend. Part of the bill is named after Ensminger’s daughter, Janey, who died of a rare form of leukemia in 1985 at age 9.

"It’s been a long time coming" Ensminger said. "But like I said before, this is not the end. I got a lot of kick left. I want the truth. There is still a lot we're not being told."

For years, the bill failed to gain needed momentum. But last month the Senate and House passed the measure after their respective Veterans Affairs Committees agreed on a bill, introduced by Winston-Salem Republican Sen. Richard Burr, that would provide health care for people who lived or worked at the Marine Corps base from Jan. 1, 1957, through Dec. 31, 1987. They also must have a condition listed within the bill that's associated with exposure to these chemicals.

Burr, who along with Sen. Kay Hagan, a Greensboro Democrat and Rep. Brad Miller, a Raleigh Democrat, long sought to convince members of Congress to provide health care for the sick Marines and their families.

It is expected to help as many as 750,000 veterans and their families who were exposed to drinking water that was poisoned with trichloroethylene, tetrachloroethylene, benzene and vinyl chloride.

Miller was the original sponsor of the Janey Ensminger Act, which was included in a modified version of Burr’s bill that passed in the House. He called it a shame that the Marines have been reluctant to accept responsibility for the water contamination.

The Marines said they have worked diligently to identify any individuals who may have been exposed to the chemicals in drinking water, but officials maintain the evidence remains inconclusive. Capt Kendra Motz said several government reviews have also concluded that the Marines have never sought to cover up information or withhold data.

“Unfortunately, to date, the science has proven inconclusive,” she said in an email. “In recognition of this fact, Congress has provided the benefits under the bill, "notwithstanding that there is insufficient medical evidence to conclude that such illnesses or conditions are attributable to such service.”

Burr disagrees. And he said the Navy has yet to answer why it withheld documents showing the contamination.

The next step is continuing to study whether non-military personnel, such as contractors, on the base at the time may have been infected by the water, Burr said. While the threshold is different, he said it’s important to examine the issue and debate whether the federal government is responsible for their care.

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