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Defense bill strikes Drum health plan, funds projects


WASHINGTON — The Fort Drum Regional Health Planning Organization won’t receive funding through an annual defense bill next year, putting a major source of the group’s operating budget in jeopardy for the second year in a row.

A House-Senate conference committee struck $500,000 for the FDRHPO that Rep. William L. Owens, D-Plattsburgh, had shepherded through the House Armed Services Committee — part of a broad swipe the joint panel took at items added by House lawmakers from both parties.

In an interview Tuesday, Mr. Owens called the loss of the funding a “large disappointment” and said he was running out of ideas for funding as budget-cutting overtakes the congressional agenda. “We’ve tried every possible scenario,” he said.

The organization is a partnership between the Army and north country hospitals, coordinating care to soldiers and their families. Fort Drum is the largest Army installation without its own hospital.

The legislation at issue is a broad annual measure outlining defense programs. Lawmakers reached agreements on a 1.6 percent pay raise for soldiers, on clearing the way for increases in premiums for the military’s Tricare health insurance program and on detainee policy, which had threatened to derail the bill.

The House is poised to approve the legislation today, and the Senate could follow suit later this week. Passage is likely, given lawmakers eagerness to support soldiers and national defense.

While the FDRHPO’s loss was disappointing to Mr. Owens, the agreement does include millions of dollars for construction at Fort Drum, including some items the representative had added to the House legislation and which survived the conference.

Some of the Fort Drum projects include $5.7 million for an ammunition supply point, $7.6 million for a chapel, $4.7 million for a dental clinic addition and $15.7 million for a medical clinic. In addition, the conference committee included $3.5 million for energy retrofits on various buildings at Fort Drum that was not in President Barack Obama’s budget request.

The conference committee struck $10 million that Mr. Owens sought for ground and utility improvements intended for Fort Drum.

However, the final version does contain a provision he wrote requiring the Defense Department to list individual equipment in its base budget, which could help companies such as Otis Technology, Lyons Falls, anticipate demand for its weapon-cleaning products.

Mr. Owens said construction projects tended to fare better in the conference committee than “soft” items such as the health planning organization, even though the FDRHPO saves millions of dollars in health care costs by coordinating services.

The conference committee was guided by a mandate to cut spending, as well as by pressure to avoid home-district projects that could be attacked as earmarks, which Congress has banned for the time being. In the end, the panel cut overall spending, as well as military construction, from levels Mr. Obama requested.

A message left for FDRHPO Executive Director Denise Young was not immediately returned Tuesday. Although the organization was created through earmarks several years ago, it has received larger amounts of money through grants — but still relied until this year on earmarks to cover basic operations.

It was created largely through the efforts of former Rep. John M. McHugh, R-Pierrepont Manor, now secretary of the Army, who never shied away from earmarking in his congressional career.

Government watchdog groups have criticized lawmakers for working around the earmarks ban and rallied behind a bill by Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. that would broaden the definition of earmarks to include any congressionally directed spending item.

Whether items in the defense authorization bill qualify as earmarks — the bill sets funding levels but doesn’t actually spend the money that an appropriations bill does — is a point of some debate on Capitol Hill.

While lawmakers added items to the defense bill, reforms that Democrats had put in place before the moratorium — listing projects by the sponsor’s name — have been jettisoned.

“It’s even more difficult to find them now than it was before,” said Leslie Paige, spokeswoman for Citizens Against Government Waste.

Mr. Owens said earlier this week that he was following the rules set forth by the GOP majority on the House Armed Services Committee — rules now under attack by government watchdogs and lawmakers alike.

“I think the process has largely backfired,” he said Tuesday.

Mr. Owens said he could accept the bill’s overall spending level of $662.4 billion, as well as likely increases in Tricare premiums, as the government tries to reduce the deficit.

“I think it’s reasonable, under the circumstances,” Mr. Owens said.

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