The ranking Republican on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee said he may move to freeze bonuses for Department of Veterans Affairs leaders because of delays in implementing a law that would provide health care to families of Marines exposed to water pollution at Camp Lejeune.
The threat by Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina comes after the VA recently told his office that implementation of the Janey Ensminger Act may not occur until March 2014 at the earliest and perhaps as late as early 2015. President Barack Obama signed it into law in August 2012.
The delay involves only family members who lived on the North Carolina base who would not otherwise be eligible for VA medical care because they are not themselves veterans.
This news comes as the latest figures released by the VA show that 75 percent of the 1,483 veterans who have applied for full VA benefits because of exposure to tainted water at Lejeune have been rejected by the agency since December 2010.
Up to a million people were exposed to carcinogens at Camp Lejeune from 1953 to 1987 in one of the nation's worst-ever contaminations of a large drinking-water system, scientists say. That includes tens of thousands of Floridians.
"Maybe that will get their attention," Burr said. "They've had plenty of time to get the (act) into place. There is no question the VA made the determination to slow walk rulemaking. They've ignored the fact that there are people in need."
He added: "This is ridiculous. They clearly have looked for any reason to delay the process. It's obvious they have never wanted to be responsible for the care of this population."
The VA did not respond to a request by the Tampa Bay Times to comment on implementation of the law. In a statement sent to Burr's office, the agency said the process is daunting.
"Processing of medical benefit claims for Camp Lejeune family members will be complex, and therefore will require sufficient time and resources," the VA said.
Asked about the 75 percent rejection rate of veteran claims, the agency told the Times it must rely on evidence presented by veterans.
"There have been no presumptions established for any disease associated with exposure to the contaminated water at Camp Lejeune," the VA said in a statement. "Medical opinion evidence has been positive in only about 25 percent of claims decided."The Janey Ensminger Act was named after the 9-year-old daughter of former Marine drill instructor Jerry Ensminger, who served at Lejeune. His daughter was conceived at the base and died of leukemia in 1985.
"People are dying," said Ensminger, who watched as Obama signed the act into law in the Oval Office. "What has the VA been doing for the last seven months? This is government bureaucracy at its finest. The bill passed through Congress. The president signed it into law. Now an agency doesn't want to do its job and is dragging its feet."
Burr and Ensminger said they found it particularly irksome that the VA, up until this month, never indicated the true length of delays.
The rulemaking process prescribed for federal agencies can be tedious and prolonged. It includes a two-month public comment period, a review by the Office of Management and Budget and publication of rules in the Federal Register.
Ensminger noted the VA won't complete draft rulemaking, which triggers the start of the process and rigid timetables, until July.
Ensminger, a North Carolina resident, also said the agency's 75 percent rejection rate of veteran claims is outrageous.
Jody MacPherson's husband, Colin MacPherson, who was born on the base as the son of a Marine and later served there when he joined the Corps, died in 2004 at age 46 of an extraordinarily aggressive prostate cancer.
Jody MacPherson, 51, a Riverview resident, has continued her husband's VA claim since his death and has been denied four times. She is not eligible for VA health care under the Janey Ensminger Act because she never lived at Lejeune.
MacPherson said the VA's reasons for denial often border on the absurd. The VA noted, for example, that her husband never sought care while in the military for prostate cancer. But her husband was discharged in 1985, long before his diagnosis.
"My husband was proud to be in the Marine Corps," MacPherson said. "He was proud to be an American. I don't think he'd be proud of what the government is doing now."
There is one thing the VA has not told MacPherson during her struggle over her husband's claim.
The VA has approved claims by 60 other Camp Lejeune veterans who suffered prostate cancer, VA figures show, while it told MacPherson that there was no link between the disease and polluted water.
William R. Levesque can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3432.