The Department of Veterans Affairs is playing with the health of America's military families by dragging its feet on following a law to help those who were exposed to contaminated water at Camp Lejeune. As the Tampa Bay Times' William R. Levesque reported Sunday, the VA recently disclosed it may take until 2015 to implement a health care provision that President Barack Obama signed into law in August 2012. The agency needs to speed up this timetable for the sake of veterans' families and its own credibility.
The Janey Ensminger Act enables family members of some veterans who were stationed at Camp Lejeune to apply for VA medical benefits. The law is intended to meet the health care needs of nonveterans who may have been exposed to tainted water while living on the North Carolina base. As many as to 1 million people were exposed to carcinogens at Camp Lejeune from 1953 to 1987 in what scientists have called one of the nation's worst cases of contamination of a large drinking water system. The number affected includes as many as tens of thousands of Floridians.
Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., said he may move to freeze the bonuses of VA leaders to get their cooperation in speeding up the timetable. The threat by the ranking Republican on the Veterans Affairs Committee came after the VA told him that it would be between 2014 and 2015 when the law would be implemented, up to three years after Obama signed the legislation. In a statement to Burr's office, the VA maintained that carrying out the law was a "complex" process that could not be completed before March 2014.
The rulemaking process can be time-consuming, partly because the public and affected parties deserve the chance to provide feedback to federal authorities on the practical implications of any law. But there is no reason the VA is not further along. Burr said he was particularly troubled that the VA had not indicated the extent of the delays until this month.
The agency needs to give these military families a higher priority. Turning a blind eye compounds the health care risks and damages public confidence in the VA's ability to carry out its mission. Florida's congressional delegation should join Burr in insisting that the VA get on the ball and in holding its leaders accountable.