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ARLINGTON, Va. — Pentagon officials issued a clarification Wednesday, saying that troops wounded in combat have been exempted permanently from paying for their meals when staying in military hospitals.

Officials acknowledged they misunderstood the November legislation that made the change permanent.

As late as mid-March, Pentagon officials said the exemption expired at the end of the fiscal year, or Sept. 30, and they were awaiting Congress to decide if it would be extended.

When originally passed in September 2003 as part of the 2004 Defense Appropriations Act, the exemption was set to expire Sept. 30, 2004, Pentagon spokesman James Turner said.

But in November, Congress indefinitely extended the exemption.

Troops were paying $8.10 per day for hospital meals if they were wounded or became ill while supporting the nation’s global war on terror, said Health Affairs spokesman Perry Bishop.

And now, the Pentagon is asking Congress, as part of the 2005 budget request under consideration, to extend the exemption to all military personnel hospitalized, not just those in connection with combat, Turner said.

Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Fla., chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, had agitated for a law exempting wounded troops from paying the $8.10 hospital meals charge, even while collecting their Basic Allowance for Subsistence.

When deployed and not required to eat at a chow hall or meals supplied by the military, such as Meals Ready to Eat, troops receive Basic Allowance for Subsistence — money in their regular paychecks for food.

Military hospitals have been charging officers who collect the BAS for their food since 1958, and enlisted members since 1981 under laws that went into affect to avoid “double dipping,” or getting both the BAS and free hospital food.

In fiscal 2002, for which the latest data is available, military hospitals billed servicemembers $1.5 million for meals.

The laws make the provision retroactive to Sept. 11, 2001. However, Pentagon policy writers still are in the process of drafting the procedures to reimburse troops who already paid the meals fee. Officials are aiming for it to be done between April and June, Turner has said.

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