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House OKs $350 million for Fort Benning hospital

WASHINGTON — The House approved spending roughly $350 million Thursday to rebuild Fort Benning's Martin Army Community Hospital — a funding boost that officials said is especially welcome as Benning's 3rd Heavy Brigade Combat Team returns from Iraq and the Columbus area braces for the addition of thousands of personnel because of base realignment.

The money for Martin Army was folded into a heavily debated Iraq war spending bill and includes roughly $850 million for four of the nation's aging military health facilities. Fort Benning, Ga., Camp LeJune, N.C., Fort Sam Houston, Texas, and Fort Riley, Kan. — bases in states with members on the powerful House Appropriations Committee — will receive a boost in funding if the domestic spending portion of the Iraq war supplemental is approved by the Senate and signed into law by President Bush.

"I am very pleased the chief negotiators of this bill recognized the importance of replacing some of our nation's oldest military medical facilities," said Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Ga. "Providing our men and women in uniform access to modern, state-of-the-art medical facilities is simply the right thing to do."

The hospitals rank high on the Pentagon's list of needed improvements and include places that some Democratic House leaders have said need immediate attention.

At Martin Army, at least once a month old and corroding pipes force the hospital to shut down its entire plumbing system. If the water is out for longer than a day, patients must wash in portable showers.

The roof needs replacing and the electrical system is at capacity, hospital officials said. The heating and cooling systems are so old that temperatures cannot be adjusted in individual rooms.

The Army has identified Martin Army Hospital, which was constructed in 1957 and is one of the oldest facilities of its type in the Army Medical Department, as the highest priority hospital replacement project in the nation because of its age and its function serving the military community as part of a sweeping round of base realignments and closures. The Army estimates that, eventually, up to 100,000 soldiers, military trainees, retirees civilians, and their families will be eligible to use the rebuilt hospital.

Congress also has directed the Department of Defense to develop a comprehensive master plan for construction and renovation of medical treatment facilities, according to the House Appropriations Committee. The Pentagon will have to provide a comprehensive priority list of projects for each branch of the armed services, a cost estimate for each project, supply data on the current state of medical facilities and disclose the projected change in demand for services due to military growth to the appropriations committees no later than Dec. 31.

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