The VA hospital is running a special this week on Coke refills - now only 89 cents!

Regularly $525.

At least that's how much North Charleston resident Christopher Lewis was charged Wednesday, when an officer at the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center caught him in the hospital cantina refilling a large soda without first paying.

The feds haven't taken down anyone that hard since Dillinger.

They grabbed him, took him to another room, wrote him a citation for shoplifting and evicted him from the property. Lewis, an on-site construction worker, basically lost his job.

Yes, they literally made a federal case out of this.

Apparently the Patriot Café has a lot of trouble with folks figuring it's OK to grab a free refill. And why would anyone think that, just because that's how it works with self-serve drink machines at nearly every other restaurant and cafeteria in the free world.

People should know better. You combine the federal government with a hospital and you have the absolute nexus of ridiculously inflated prices. The feds pay $800 for hammers, and hospitals charge $125 for aspirin.

Of course, Sprite is going to set you back a Lexus payment.

Lewis should have known. And, in the hospital's defense, the sign noting the price of refills was right there on the machine.

Still, this raises a number of troubling questions, such as: Shouldn't federal police at a military facility be more concerned with Al Qaeda than Al Bundy?

Not much fizz

Late Thursday afternoon, the VA put out a statement saying that Lewis is not banned from the hospital and that "a warning in lieu of a citation is sufficient in this case."

You think?

See, Lewis was going to fight this, both out of principle and to protect his reputation. And you can't blame him. He already had a court date. And this is exactly the kind of case we need clogging up the federal justice system.

The court now calls the case of the Fanta felon.

Hospital officials probably knew they would get laughed out of the courtroom. The ticket literally says the suspect "got more soda from the soda machine without paying."

What, we hire hall monitors to police federal facilities now?

This is the kind of thing that makes you question the government's priorities. The feds will forget about that trillion dollars defense contractors have defrauded the government for, but they are going to pop a soda stealer?

At first, the hospital actually called this a theft of government property - after all, they caught him Mello Yello-handed.

But Lewis freely admitted he'd gotten refills before, not realizing he was supposed to pay. And he even offered to pay, but they wouldn't let him.

You know, if the federal government paid this much attention to Medicaid fraud, we might not have a deficit.

At the very least, Dr. Pepper might get popped for over-billing.

The real thing

Frankly, the VA didn't need this kind of publicity.

Just last week it came out that a patient - a military veteran - may have died three years ago because of a delay in care.

Does the hospital really want the snack bar staff to look more vigilant than its doctors?

Even though Lewis is off the hook, it's too late for the hospital to emerge unscathed. They have ensured that the federal government's reputation for lunacy lingers.

And they have caught the attention of some people they really don't want fiddling with their budget.

Congressman Mark Sanford, a guy who likes free refills (or free anything, for that matter), says this is just another example of the woeful lack of common sense in government.

And he's absolutely right.

"It looks like there would have been a less bureaucratic and more sane way to handle this," Sanford says. "It's an appalling example of government over-reach and over-reaction. Why did VA security escalate this to the point of crisis?"

That's a good question.

The federal bureaucracy will get back to us with an answer in 4-6 weeks.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com.