Commissaries to be consolidated

In these tight budget times, the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee has learned it must cut current spending to fund new initiatives for veterans.

For example, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., committee chairman, would pay for her Hiring Heroes Act of 2011 by extending by three years, to 2014, a higher fee on veterans who reuse their VA home loan authority. So the committee agreed that current fee of 3.3 percent for “subsequent” home loan usage, set to fall to 2.15 percent Oct. 1, should only fall now to 3.0 percent. The full Congress would have to agree to that.

But another tradeoff agreed to last week will anger base shoppers.

To free up billions of dollars for the cost of providing VA health care to veterans and family members exposed to contaminated water over three decades at Camp Lejeune, N.C., Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., won approval, without debate, to consolidate all base exchanges and commissary operations worldwide into a single for-profit retailing system.

The Congressional Budget Office floated a similar deficit-reduction idea last January, projecting savings to the Department of Defense of $200 million the first year after consolidation and $9.1 billion over the first 10 years. A large part of the savings is derived from reducing the value of commissary shopping where groceries now are sold at cost plus a small surcharge.

A spokeswoman for Burr said his store consolidation plan would be different but she could not provide full details.

The CBO plan would have softened the effect of selling food at exchange prices by phasing in a tax-free grocery allowance for service members. Exchanges, or base department stores, earn profit on items sold and the profits then are used to fund base morale, welfare and recreational activities such as gyms and libraries.

CBO estimated base shoppers would pay 7 percent more for groceries under a consolidated system. Burr’s bill would need only half of CBO’s projected savings to cover care of ill Camp Lejeune veterans.

During a mark-up hearing on six bills previously considered by the veterans’ committee, the Caring for Camp Lejeune Veterans Act (S 277) sailed through with unanimous support and no discussion over Burr’s late-hour plan to pay for it. The bill would extend health services to Marine Corps and Navy veterans and family members assigned to Lejeune sometime from 1957 to 1987, a period when water there was contaminated by “volatile organic compounds including known carcinogens and probable carcinogens,” explained the committee’s short summary of the bill.

The Navy Department dragged its feet in addressing the contamination and acknowledging possible health effects, which proponents contend includes higher incidences of rare cancers. Government-funded studies are only now being conducted “to gauge how much of the dangerous chemicals” Lejeune residents “were exposed to and how it impacted their health,” Burr said. “But those who were put at risk should not have to wait for these studies before VA will provide them with care.”

But one Senate source, upset by Burr’s funding plan, said it likely would mean an end to the annual $1.3 billion subsidy of commissary operations and, therefore, “do away with commissaries as we know it.”

The bill would direct VA to provide the care to Lejeune veterans and families but collect those costs from DoD. Burr estimates the size of the potential population at 600,000 but VA officials said it’s one million, and total costs over the next decade could reach $4.1 billion.