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Congressional panel mulls funding for Drum health organization

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WASHINGTON — North country lawmakers will find out this week if the Fort Drum Regional Health Planning Organization receives a boost of federal funds or is left looking to other sources to survive.

A House-Senate conference committee will decide whether to support the FDRHPO through an annual bill outlining defense programs. The prospects may be dim, said a Senate aide who works with the Armed Services Committee’s Democratic majority.

At stake is $500,000 for the organization, a network of local hospitals that helps fill in the gaps created by a lack of a hospital on Fort Drum. The program’s operating budget has been supported by federal earmarks since its creation several years ago, although grants and other funding constitute a big piece of its overall finances.

The post, with about 20,000 soldiers and their families, is the biggest Army installation in the country without its own hospital, although it does have a health clinic.

Lawmakers, including Rep. William L. Owens, D-Plattsburgh, have been looking for ways to maintain federal support without earmarks, the hometown appropriations that Congress voluntarily banned last year.

“We’ve tried to get Tricare to support us,” Mr. Owens said, referring to the military’s health insurance program. The congressman was able to work a provision into the House version of the defense bill to salvage funding for military partnerships with community health organizations – vague language that essentially means the FDRHPO because it is an unusual case.

But in the Senate — where such installation-specific items have never proliferated as much as in the House — lawmakers balked at anything resembling an earmark. The chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. Carl M. Levin, D-Mich., is not likely to go along with the House provision, given the pressures to cut the defense budget, the congressional aide said.

That is true, she said, even though half a million dollars is tiny in the defense budget. The House approved its version well before the Senate did, and the pressure to cut has only grown, she said. The House version costs more than the Obama administration requested in its budget for the next fiscal year.

Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, D-N.Y., is a member of the conference committee and is advocating for the FDRHPO, her office said. She wrote to the top Democrats on the House and Senate committees Tuesday, urging them to support the provision and adding that Tricare officials have agreed in meetings in her office that the program is valuable.

Mr. Owens said in a telephone interview that securing funding for the FDRHPO is his top priority for the defense bill. Because he is not on the conference committee, he is relying on Mrs. Gillibrand to pick up on the effort he made in the House.

While refusal by the Armed Services committees to fund the organization would shut off the primary avenue, other opportunities could arise through other legislation, and Mrs. Gillibrand and Mr. Owens will be looking at those as well, aides said.

The House and Senate versions of the defense bill diverge on big-picture issues such as treatment of terrorism detainees, but lawmakers are aiming to finish the bill as early as Thursday, which would be less than a week after the Senate approved its version — a fairly fast timetable for a defense authorization bill.

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