Commissary savings at risk to help ill Lejeune
by Tom Philpott
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 (S 951) 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.
Likewise, to pay for the Senate version
of a bill to repair a glitch in last December’s Post-9/11
GI Bill Reform Act so it doesn’t lower
benefits for at least 4000 students enrolled in private colleges across
seven states, Sen. Ch arles Schumer (D-N.Y.) got committee agreement to
extend current higher fees on VA home loans with five or 10 percent down
payments, by three years and one year respectively. The fees in question
are 1.5 percent for loans with five percent down payments and 1.25
percent for 10 percent.
But another tradeoff agreed to
Wednesday 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 commissar y 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
"No, this is not the same plan,"said Chandler
Smith. " Senator Burr intends for DoD to merge duplicative
management functions without impacting service delivery for personnel
and families. The potential cost savings in the first year would be $267
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 fund
base morale, welfare and recreational activities such as gyms and
CBO estimated that base shoppers would
pay seven 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.
"Unaware of the danger, service members and their families
drank, bathed in, and cooked with that water,"Burr told the
committee weeks ago.
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 a decade could reach $4.1
VA opposes Burr’s bill ,
citing inadequate scientific evidence so far to assess levels of
exposure or to confirm what health conditions it caused.
A few weeks ago funding seemed to be
its biggest hurdle. The Obama administration and congressional leaders
continue to seek ways to slash federal spending and lower the
nation’s $14 trillion debt. No new entitlement programs can be
launched unless lawmakers find offsets in current direct spending
programs. Burr and staff struggled to do so for the Lejeune veterans and
finally settled on ordering DoD to consolidate base stores.
The bill is being filed for
consideration of the full Senate. But the Senate Armed Services
Committee is expected to request "sequential
referral"of the bill so that its members can weigh the merits of
consolidating the store system. The armed services committee has
oversight responsibility for all matters under the Department of
Defense. If sequential referral doesn’t occur
because it needs the unanimous consent of the Senate, opponents will try
to derail Burr’s funding scheme through floor
Commissary and exchange
consolidation "is not something we would support,"said Steve
Strobridge, director of government relations for Military Officers
Association of America. "And certainly not
without going through the armed services committee. I hope it gets the
kind of scrutiny it deserves."
One critic said Burr’s
funding plan wasn’t
"thought through by anybody who knows the business models
of the commissaries and the PXs [post exchanges]. They operate
differently. They charge different prices for different
reasons…If they’re going to
use the PX business model, they would have to charge a markup on
whatever groceries are sold."
While Burr and colleagues envision a
careful consolidation of store operations, opponents fear a deep,
permanent cut to the shopping benefit.
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