Canteen ruling awaited

January 06, 1995|By Tanya Jones | Tanya Jones,Sun Staff Writer

For the last three years, the question has been this: Who should run a 1,000-square-foot convenience store at the local Veterans Medical Center? The veterans canteen service or a blind contractor.

Now, the answer is up to a federal judge.

The dispute centers on two federal laws. One gives blind people a preference in running snack bars, convenience stores or cafeterias in all federal buildings. The other, some argue, gives the choice of vendors at its hospitals solely to the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Since before the Greene Street medical center opened in 1992, the Maryland Vending Program for the Blind has been trying to get an agreement to put a convenience store run by a blind contractor there.

"There are very few business opportunities for people who are visually impaired," said Scott A. Dennis, director of the state's vending program. Dennis said several qualified people are waiting to run the medical center's store, which now is run by the veterans canteen service.

The dispute came to head in May when a federal arbitrator ordered the center to issue a permit allowing a blind person to run the store. The arbitrator set a Jan. 1 deadline for the operation to be taken over by a blind vendor.

When the deadline passed, the state this week filed suit in U.S. District Court in Baltimore to force the veterans department to comply.

Under a 1936 federal act designed to provide employment on federal property for blind people, the medical center would be required to provide space for the business rent-free.

"The department is deeply concerned that the state's position could destroy our ability to provide quality canteen services to VA patients," Jesse Brown, the secretary of veterans affairs told Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski in an August letter contained in the lawsuit. The veterans canteen service subsidizes the 75 unprofitable medical-center canteens around the country. More than 80 other medical-center canteens generate a profit, according to the letter.

Both the state and the arbitrator say veterans medical centers are not exempt from the federal act. "It's a federal facility, and a federal agency is, we feel, required to follow the act," said Mr. Dennis. "All the other federal agencies that we deal with recognize their responsibility and follow the requirements of the act."

About 75 blind vendors trained and licensed by the Maryland Vending Program for the Blind operate about 85 snack bars, convenience stores and cafeterias in federal, state and municipal agencies in Maryland, Mr. Dennis said.

The agency provides start-up capital and equipment for the concessions and trains and licenses the individual vendors. The individual vendors then function as contractors, hiring employees, ordering merchandise and paying bills. They return part of their profits to the vending program and receive salaries based on their businesses' profits.

"Their sole income is their ability to earn a living at these businesses," Mr. Dennis said.

A blind-run store at the medical center here would be the second run by blind operators at a veterans hospital nationally. A court order forced a Minnesota veterans hospital to allow a blind vendor to run a vending machine concession there.

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