Jerry Ensminger is one of more than 750,000 Marines and military family members who lived aboard Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune during a three-decade period in which serious contaminants, including chemical degreasers and organic solvents, seeped into the drinking water on base. Ensminger, a grizzled retired master sergeant, saw his 9-year-old daughter Janey die from Leukemia that he believed was caused by the contamination; others who lived on base were diagnosed with kidney cancer, non-Hodgkins lymphoma, and a host of other serious diseases. Over 70 men who lived or grew up on the base have been diagnosed with breast cancer so far.
Ensminger and his advocates in Congress have proposed that the Department of Veterans Affairs provide survivors with medical care and hospice for their contamination-related illnesses, a plan that would cost an estimated $3.9 billion to fund. It seems a reasonable request, given these veterans and family members were unwittingly poisoned by government neglect; but in these days of budget uncertainty and looming fiscal cuts, perhaps a tough sell nonetheless.
Here’s the thing: in a rare case of over allocation, VA officials found that cash in surplus — then they went ahead and unilaterally spent it on other things.
Staff with the House Veterans Affairs Committee said the VA was required to submit a healthcare budget to Congress every year based on spending estimates for that year. In the spring, officials ran another model that shows the year’s spending rate to date and how much the department is likely to spend for the rest of the year.
For Fiscal 2012, slower than estimated spending rates meant the VA was left with a $3 billion surplus for that year, committee staff said. For Fiscal 2013, it was $2 billion. (VA officials said the figures were $2.2 billion and $2 billion, respectively.)
The problem here, committee officials said, was that they were not informed until early 2012, with the president’s FY 2013 budget proposal, about a surplus that had been discovered starting in 2011. And, by the time they were informed, the money had been reinvested into other VA projects, including activating new facilities, expanding mental health, and eliminating veteran homelessness, according to VA officials.
The command decision to reinvest the $5 billion — a considerable sum, representing more than five percent of the department’s annual healthcare budget — left some lawmakers on the committee feeling snubbed.
Rep. Bill Flores, a Republican freshman from Texas, said he wanted to work with the committee to organize a hearing on the issue to hold department heads accountable.
“It would have been better if they told us when they were (finding the overage) rather than after the money’s gone,” he said.
Committee chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) penned a letter in February to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki asking him to consider allocating the overage funds to healthcare for Camp Lejeune veterans, rather than the programs the VA had specified.
Earlier in April, Shinseki responded, saying it was premature to make the decision to give the group healthcare, as studies to determine the full extent and effects of the contamination were ongoing. The letter did not mention that the agency performing the studies, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, had already stated that the water was “clearly a hazard” and the EPA had separately confirmed that two of the contaminants, Benzene and TCE, were known human carcinogens.
“The fact is that we were poisoned; the documents are there,” Ensminger told Human Events. “It’s time to move. It’s time to give these people their benefits.”
A couple weeks ago, Miller and three other lawmakers representing bipartisan leadership of the House and Senate Veterans Affairs Committees elevated the matter to President Barack Obama in a joint letter.
“VA has existing resources which could be reserved without derailing other initiatives; we will work the legislative process to complement what VA can do on its own authority,” they said.
It has been a bad week overall for confidence in VA accounting.
Last Monday, an Inspector General’s report found that the department significantly understated wait times for its mental healthcare patients and overstated the percentage of first-time patients who got timely appointments for evaluation.
Miller told Human Events via email that he has requested a full accounting of overestimated funds from the VA and made it a priority to ensure Congress and the VA work together in the future on these matters.
Miller said he was also working to get those affected by Camp Lejeune water their needed medical care as quickly as possible, whether by opening up a VA priority, passing legislation now in Congress, or drafting a new resolution.
“These men and women have been waiting too long to be recognized by our government, and should not have to wait another day,” he said.
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