WASHINGTON – Wounded soldiers will no longer have to pay for their own hospital meals under a bill that is on its way to the president for his signature.
The final version of the $87 billion Iraq supplemental spending bill, which passed the Senate Monday and the House last week, eliminates the policy of charging wounded soldiers $8.10 a day for the food they receive in the hospital. It will also reimburse soldiers for any such payments since Sept. 11, 2001.
“It’s a huge step,” said Ruth Vogel of Westminster. Her son was wounded in Iraq and then told he would have to pay for meals at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, where he had some of the five surgeries on his amputated right arm.
But Vogel, who first brought the issue to the attention of Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., said, “We have a long way to go to make sure that we’re treating our veterans with respect and not adding insult upon injury.”
The meal-charge policy has been in place since 1958 for military officers, and since 1981 for enlisted service members. It affects active duty and retired enlisted military personnel being treated for service-related injuries.
Mikulski said she did not know about the meal charges until Vogel contacted her to complain in July.
“On his very first day back in America at Walter Reed Hospital, he was awakened . . . and told that he would be charged for his meals,” Mikulski said. “That is absolutely unacceptable.”
Mikulski introduced an amendment to do away with the charges and co-sponsored another amendment to make the meal-charge ban retroactive to Sept. 11, 2001. Both measures were included in the final bill.
The bill does not spell out how reimbursements will be made, but a Defense Department spokesman said the Pentagon supports the elimination of the charge.
“We should do everything we can to help our service members, especially those wounded in action, ” said Capt. David T. Romley.
A spokesman for Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who co-sponsored the retroactive reimbursement language, said senators expect the Pentagon “to contact these folks and make the reimbursements,” but he did not provide further detail.
The spending bill passed the Senate by voice vote, with no recorded roll call. It passed the House 198-121 on Friday. President Bush is expected to sign the bill, which grants his emergency request for money to support operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“It’s about time,” said Vogel.
Her son, North Dakota National Guard Sgt. Brandon Erickson, 22, was injured in a rocket-propelled grenade attack in Iraq on July 22. At Walter Reed several days later, he was still groggy from an operation just hours earlier on his amputated arm when Erickson was asked to sign papers authorizing the meal charges.
His meal charges were reversed after his mother’s phone call to Mikulski’s office. He was hospitalized for about seven weeks, which — at about $56.70 per week — could have cost him almost $400.
Erickson said in an October interview that not having to worry about that bill allowed him to focus on his recovery — which is what lawmakers have said injured soldiers should concentrate on.
“For all those wounded while defending America, they should worry about getting well, not finding loose change to hand over to their government for their lunch,” Mikulski said this week.