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.

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 with its cost of $4 billion over the first 10 years.

The bill’s sponsor is Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., ranking member on the veterans affairs committee. A member of his staff said Sen. Burr is “adamant” about securing health care for Marine Corps and Navy vets and families sickened by drinking water on base from 1957 through 1987. Burr is not wedded to the idea of 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, leaked 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 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 he thinks families 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 last month 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.

The overall effect would be to “disenfranchise all of the 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 and others who sell products or services to military stores. Nixon also is former director of the Defense Commissary Agency.

When he read the legislation, 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?”

Burr and his staff “now realize that the juice on this isn’t worth the squeeze,” Nixon said. “The last we heard [the] staff was talking about recrafting the legislation.”

Senator Burr did not grant our request for an interview. A staffer noted with frustration that press coverage surrounding the bill has focused largely on the source of funding rather than progress make toward bringing health care to ill veterans and families, recognizing that many have died.

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 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 the plan before it is cleared for consideration of the full Senate.

In the House, Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., chairman of the armed services’ personnel subcommittee, is so alarmed by the threat to commissaries that he plans special action soon.

“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.”

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