Measure could cost commissaries

Jerry Ensminger, a retired Marine Corps master sergeant who has fought for years to win government-funded health care for families exposed to contaminated water at Camp Lejeune, doesn’t want the measure passed if, to pay for it, Congress would gut the military’s prized commissary benefit.

Critics contend that’s what the Caring for Camp Lejeune Veterans Act (S. 277) would do, funding health care for these families by ending annual appropriations for commissaries and merging these base grocery store operations with exchanges, the name for base department stores.

“Do I agree with this proposal to punish veterans and their families and active duty people who depend on, and worked for, the right to use the commissary? Hell no. We have lost too many of our benefits over the years to have this taken from us,” Ensminger said in a phone interview.

But Ensminger, who lost a9-year-old daughter, Janey, to acute lymphoblastic leukemia in 1985, and blames her death and many others on poisons found in Lejeune drinking water, had only praise for Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., lead architect of S. 277. In June, when forced to find cuts in defense spending to pay for Lejeune vets’ health care, Burr proposed streamlining military store operations. The full committee agreed.

Just by getting S. 277 through the veterans affairs committee this summer, Burr brought ailing Lejeune veterans and families closer to the medical help they need, Ensminger suggested. That alone is a victory.

“Now, does the bill need to be amended and tweaked? Yes, by all means,” he said. “Does there need to be another way of paying for it? Yes, and there are other savings that can be found within the Department of Defense budget. But, that burden should not be placed on Senator Burr or Senator (Patty) Murray or the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee (which she chairs). It should be placed on the perpetrators who did this.”

That, Ensminger said, is the Department of Defense, and more specifically the Navy Department and the Marine Corps.

Burr’s decision to fund S. 277 by putting commissaries at risk has been roundly criticized by military associations, commissary patrons and the American Logistics Association, which represents suppliers doing business with base stores. ALA projects that, if passed as written, S. 277 would raise grocery prices an average of $4,000 a year for military families and kill 50,000 store jobs for family members.

The vast infrastructure of commissaries, built over decades and funded by a 5-percent surcharge on commissary items that otherwise are sold at cost, would be lost to patrons forever, said Patrick Nixon, ALA’s president and a former director of the Defense Commissary Agency.

Commissary advocates on Capitol Hill suggest the store system had a target on its back for deficit hawks already. The target only got bigger when the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee signaled that ending taxpayer subsidies and lowering patron savings were reasonable efficiency moves.

Burr’s staff merely had found and embraced a cost-savings proposal floated by the Congressional Budget Office for the last several years.

The same commission said some savings could be returned to families in the form of a grocery allowance to offset the price increase. S. 277 proposes no such allowance. CBO said arguing against this is the fact that a combined store network still could offer patrons “below-market prices.”

The offset to pay for S. 277, said David Ward, Burr’s spokesman, “is just one option for providing care for the veterans and their family members who suffer as a result of exposure to toxic water at Camp Lejeune.” Burr remains “open to working with DOD to find other means to pay for this important legislation.”