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 U.S. Sen. Richard Burr of 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.
Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs oppose the bill. It would direct the Defense Department 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, a dry cleaning solvent, was leaking into parts of the Lejeune water system from an off-base business.
The chemical 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 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.
When he read the legislation and saw how it would damage one of the military's most prized benefits, Nixon said, it "couldn't pass the sanity test. First, why would the veterans' affairs (committee) take on this DoD program? And then why gut it to pay for a veterans affairs program?"
A challenge for Burr advancing his bill is that Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., chairman of the veterans affairs committee, insisted that budget offsets to pay for it come from defense dollars, not from the Department of Veterans Affairs. Matt McAlvanah, spokesman for Murray, confirmed this.
"Senator Murray believes adamantly that because DoD is responsible for the exposures, they must be responsible for footing the bill," McAlvanah said. "However, she did not specify anything about what the nature of the DoD funding source must be."
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.
In the House, Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., chairman of the armed services' personnel subcommittee, is so alarmed by the threat to commissaries raised by S 277 that he plans special action soon, said a staffer. Wilson hopes to signal debt reduction negotiators anywhere that military shopping discounts are to be protected.
"This is just not about Burr. Burr is endemic of the general prevailing attitude. We are going to try to take on that attitude," said a House source. Wilson's message will be that the shopping benefit "is not an easy cut. There's real value here and if you cut it, you're going to do serious damage."
Wilson sought a meeting with Burr to explain what service members stand to lose if store systems are merged and commissary funding is ended. Wilson fears that S 277 has shone a spotlight on the $1.3 billion annual appropriation for commissaries and could be targeted again, by the Office of Management and Budget or the Defense Business Board, as they strive to cut defense spending, as President Barack Obama has pledged, by at least $400 billion over the next 12 years.