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House panel okays measure to save hospital jobs at MacDill, other bases

As an independent commission eyes dozens of military bases for closure, the powerful House Appropriations Committee on Tuesday approved a measure to prohibit cutbacks at base hospitals. The measure would block personnel cuts at MacDill Air Force Base's hospital in Tampa and at least 17 other hospitals that are on a hit list of closures recommended by Defense Secretary Dick Cheney. It also would protect other hospitals and clinics recently added to the list under consideration by the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission.

If approved by Congress and President Bush, the measure would serve as an insurance policy to be used by bases that end up on the final closure list being drafted by the commission.

"This keeps the door from being slammed on us completely," said U.S. Rep. C.W. "Bill" Young, R-St. Petersburg. He helped write the measure that was in the huge defense appropriations bill passed by the committee Tuesday.

The base closure commission was set up _ with the approval of Congress _ to avoid the type of political muscle lawmakers used Tuesday to protect military hospitals. But the authors of the anti-closing measure are the people who control the purse strings of government, and they contend that their idea saves taxpayers' money.

Young argues that closing the MacDill hospital would force thousands of military retirees to use a more expensive health-care contractor, known as the Civilian Health and Medical Program of the Uniformed Services (CHAMPUS). Even more would be sent to CHAMPUS if the Orlando Naval Training Center hospital were closed, the congressman says.

In another bid to avoid base closing cutbacks, the committee approved $44.4-million to keep the 185-bed Letterman Hospital at San Francisco's Presidio Army base open for a year. An earlier base closing package shuts Presidio in 1995, but local lawmakers fear the hospital might close its doors sooner.

As part of the California strategy, the appropriations panel ordered the Defense Department to study the idea of keeping Letterman open, rather going ahead with plans to construct a new hospital eight miles away in Oakland.

Also Tuesday, the committee voted to block the Defense Department from closing research and development laboratories. The base closing commission has decided to study the closure of some laboratories to save money.