The problem comes from the funding source for the care. Sen Richard Burr (R-NC), the ranking Republican on the committee tacked on an amendment to the bill at the last minute, without hearing or discussion, that would fund the care by eliminating the Military Commissary benefit.
There are a couple of problems with this solution. In the first place, the Veterans Affairs has no control over the budget of the DOD, they are separate Cabinet level Departments. It would be like the State Department changing the budget for the National Park Service which falls under the Interior Department.
The argument for the funding source comes from the Chair of the VA Committee, Sen Patty Murray (D-WA). According to Tom Philpott, writing for the the Island Packet online,
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."
Every dollar that the VA spends on a veteran is directly due to some exposure for which the DOD is responsible. Why does this one require the DOD to pick up the tab? How is this any different from Agent Orange, or a battlefield injury or training accident? They all result from an exposure for which the DOD is ultimately responsible. That is what the VA is for - providing care for veterans injured while under DOD orders.
Even worse though, is the additional hardship that closing the commissaries will cause for military service members and their families. And some of them are having it hard enough already.
According to the Army Times, food stamp use in military commissaries has increased nearly 40% in the last year. The increase is striking as it follows two other years where military usage outstripped civilian increases.
2008 — Commissaries: up 21%; Nationwide: up 14%
2009 — Commissaries: up 75%; Nationwide: up 46%
2010 — Commissaries: up 38%; Nationwide: up 19%
Sources: Defense Commissary Agency, Agriculture Department
Technically, S 277 will not close the commissaries, they will be merged with the Military Exchanges. The difference is that the exchange system marks up the goods it sells to help finance morale, welfare and recreation for the troops. The commissaries sell goods at cost plus 5%. Neither charge sales tax. (Some states, like California, also charge no sales tax on groceries.)
As currently structured, it is estimated that the commissaries will save the average military family 30% on their grocery bills. And since many military facilities exist in isolated or rural areas where prices tend to be on the high side and selection limited, these savings are really important to military families.
Think about it. These military families are just like those that were exposed to the deadly contaminants at Camp Lejeune. The Marine Corps has admitted that the water was contaminated. The Senate has decided to provide care for the injured service members and their families. And then they punish serving military families by cutting their benefits to pick up the cost of the poisoning. Just how unfair is this?
Also, please note who it is that wants the DOD to pay for the VA’s cost. Senator Murray will be sitting on the Super Congress. In her defense, she did not specifically target this valuable family benefit, and I frankly find it hard to believe that she would want military service members and their families to pay additional costs "because DoD is responsible for the exposures".
MOAA has requested that its members send the following email to their Senators:
The Senate Veterans Affairs Committee has approved a modified version of S. 277 that would eliminate funding for military commissaries to pay for VA health care for veterans exposed to contaminated water at Camp Lejeune in years before 1988.
Camp Lejeune victims deserve help, but ending the federal subsidy for military commissaries and consolidating commissaries and exchanges isn't the answer.
The commissary subsidy is one of DoD's best compensation values, providing nearly $3 in patron savings for every $1 of federal funding (and more than that for lower-grade enlisted families).
DoD commissaries and exchanges are the proper purview of the Armed Services Committee, not the Veterans Affairs Committee. There are good reasons why the Armed Services Committee has rejected such proposals in the past. Raiding DoD funds to pay for VA health care is wrong, and certainly shouldn't be done without consideration and hearings by the committee of jurisdiction.
Please vote against S. 277 or any other legislation that would make such radical cutbacks in support for military commissary and exchange programs.
Please join us in sending this or a similar letter or email to your Senators.
Support for cutting this important Family benefit is also coming from Sen Coburn (R-OK), no surprise, who also wants to raise fees (not taxes, of course, can’t raise those) on military medical benefits.
And, according to Bloomberg, the Defense Business Board also feels that commissary benefit should be eliminated. The Defense Business Board’s
... members include management consultants, former executives of defense contractors and retired defense officials.
My goodness, who would have thought that the jackals who make money off war would suggest cutting spending on the people who fight those wars as opposed to, I don't know, cutting wars? These are the same people proposing the retirement reforms (read cuts) that brooklynbadboy highlighted on the front page of Daily Kos on August 17, 2011.