Vet care funding alarms shoppers

Advocates for military commissaries are optimistic they can sideline a Senate Veterans Affairs Committee plan that would end subsidies of base grocery stores so the same money could pay for health care of veterans and families exposed years ago to contaminated water at Camp Lejeune, N.C.

But as momentum builds on Capitol Hill to protect shopping discounts on base, prospects dim for passage this year of the Caring for Camp Lejeune Veterans Act (S 277) with its cost of $4 billion over the first 10 years.

The bill’s sponsor is Sen. Richard Burr (N.C.), ranking Republican on the veterans affairs committee. A member of Burr’s staff said the senator is “adamant” about securing health care for Marine Corps and Navy vets and families contaminated by drinking water on base from 1957 through 1987.

But Burr is not wedded to his first “option” to pay for that care, by merging commissaries and exchanges into a single retail system across the military.

“We are certainly willing to work with (the armed services) committees, or the Department of Defense, to find another way, if that’s what they would like to do. But this gets the ball rolling on a discussion of how to pay for this care,” Burr’s aide said.

DoD and the Department of Veterans Affairs oppose the bill. It would direct DoD to pay the VA to provide health care for up to a million veterans and family members who lived for a time on Lejeune when tetrachloroethylene (PCE), a dry cleaning solvent, was leaking into parts of the Lejeune water system from an off-base business.

PCE is associated with birth defects, childhood cancers and other diseases. Burr agrees with family advocates that the Navy Department was slow to uncover the contamination and to allow studies to determine levels of exposure and incidence of diseases among former Lejeune residents.

Burr concedes the studies aren’t complete but families, he argues, shouldn’t have to wait any longer for government provided health care.

Many military associations and veterans groups support the legislation but were alarmed to learn how Burr would pay for it. A copy of the bill the committee approved June 29, not yet released publicly, directs the merger of all base stores under a single retail system in fiscal 2012, and would end all taxpayer support for commissaries by Sept. 30, 2015.

The bill also would eliminate transportation funding and some base support dollars for exchanges, which are military department stores.

The overall effect would be to “disenfranchise all of authorized patrons of the military resale system in order to pay for a very worthy veterans’ affairs initiative,” said Patrick B. Nixon, president of American Logistics Association, a trade group for manufacturers, brokers and others who sell products or services to military stores. Nixon also is former director of the Defense Commissary Agency, an authority on funding of base grocery stores.

Given the bill’s potential impact on base stores, the Senate Armed Services Committee wants to review S 277 before it is cleared for consideration of the full Senate. It might not go further than that unless other funding is found and the bill amended.