<![CDATA[Army Times]]>https://www.armytimes.comFri, 14 Jul 2023 04:18:11 +0000en1hourly1<![CDATA[Here are the rules to get reimbursed for shipping a pet in 2024 ]]>https://www.armytimes.com/pay-benefits/mil-money/2023/06/29/here-are-the-rules-to-get-reimbursed-for-shipping-a-pet-in-2024/https://www.armytimes.com/pay-benefits/mil-money/2023/06/29/here-are-the-rules-to-get-reimbursed-for-shipping-a-pet-in-2024/Thu, 29 Jun 2023 21:30:38 +0000Editor’s note: This article has been updated with new information from Air Force Aid Society.

Service members will be able to get reimbursed for shipping Fido to their new duty station starting next year.

Troops on PCS orders may be reimbursed for the eligible costs of relocating one dog or one cat per move, under a new Defense Department policy. Reimbursement can be up to $550 if the move is made within the continental United States, and up to $2,000 if the move is made to or from overseas.

The new policy, set to take effect Jan. 1, 2024, doesn’t apply to the current PCS season and isn’t retroactive. However, the military relief societies are continuing to provide assistance for eligible families to help pay for pet shipping costs. Since 2021, the three relief societies have provided a combined $813,000 in this assistance for military families.

The reimbursement was authorized in the fiscal 2023 National Defense Authorization Act. Although the law authorizes up to $4,000 per pet for transportation to and from overseas, DoD officials set the maximum at $2,000. A Marine Corps administrative message signed June 9 cited “significant unbudgeted costs of this new authority” as a reason for pushing the benefit to Jan. 1, 2024.

Over the past few years, transportation of pets during PCS has become increasingly difficult and expensive for military families.

Realizing the financial hardship military families were facing to transport their furry family members to and from overseas, the military relief societies have stepped up to help service members with the cost. According to Army Emergency Relief and Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society, their average assistance for pet travel is around $3,000 per client. That’s not necessarily $3,000 per pet. According to AER spokesman retired Army Col. Sean Ryan, officials don’t have information on how many pets the clients are transporting, but they cap their assistance at $5,500.

Air Force Aid Society’s average amount per client is $1,000.

The fine print

♦ “Reasonable and substantiated” costs that can be reimbursed include mandatory microchipping, boarding fees, hotel service charges, licensing fees at the new permanent duty station, and pet shipping fees, if the service member flies rather than drives or the pet is shipped separately. Troops should keep their receipts.

♦ For those outside the continental U.S., eligible costs also include quarantine fees and fees for testing titer levels (antibody blood tests) for entry, as well as the costs above.

♦ When transoceanic travel is involved, the service member must use government or government-provided travel for the pet, if available, or the service member won’t be authorized reimbursement for transportation costs. These government options are lower cost, but space is limited and available only on a first-come, first-served basis. For more information, visit the Air Mobility Command pet travel page.

♦ Service members are responsible for following all the rules for importing and exporting a pet, in order to be eligible. If the pet is denied entry, the service member could be denied reimbursement, according to DoD.

♦ The changes are scheduled to be published in the Joint Travel Regulations on Jan. 1, 2024, when the new benefit takes effect.

Military relief societies’ assistance

Army Emergency Relief plans to continue its assistance for pet transportation costs, which they began in 2022.

“We will reevaluate after the new DoD policy is implemented,” said AER spokesman Ryan. “We also realize many Army households have more than one pet.”

The organization’s “zero-interest bridge loan or grant will help reduce the financial burden until the soldier is reimbursed for their travel,” he noted.

The average amount of assistance provided has been $3,000 per soldier, he said.

Since the AER program started in 2022, they’ve helped 48 soldiers with $144,000 in assistance, Ryan said. That includes 45 zero-interest loans, two grants and one loan-grant combination.

Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society began its pet travel assistance program in May 2021 and has provided $252,973 in zero-interest loans to 87 sailors and Marines, said spokeswoman Gillian Gonzalez. They, too, will continue to provide assistance and will reevaluate the program once the DoD reimbursements start. There may be continuing needs as service members wait for reimbursement or need to pay for more than one animal.

Air Force Aid Society is continuing the pet assistance it started providing in 2021. By August of that year AFAS had provided $90,550 in financial assistance to 95 airmen and guardians. In 2022 and 2023 to date, the organization has provided $325,937 in loans and grants to 332 airmen and guardians.

“Pets are an extended part of the family, and even more so for our airmen and guardians,” said Robert York, chief mission advancement officer for Air Force Aid Society. “It’s an important part of our program and we’re happy to provide this assistance.”

Airman 1st Class Taylor Slater
<![CDATA[DoD aims for more consistent support for special needs families]]>https://www.armytimes.com/pay-benefits/military-benefits/2023/06/28/dod-aims-for-more-consistent-support-for-special-needs-families/https://www.armytimes.com/pay-benefits/military-benefits/2023/06/28/dod-aims-for-more-consistent-support-for-special-needs-families/Wed, 28 Jun 2023 17:37:48 +0000Military families with special needs should expect more consistency and better support in the Exceptional Family Member Program in the wake of new Defense Department guidance.

All branches of the military offer an Exceptional Family Member Program, which includes a variety of personnel, medical and family support functions. About 110,000 active duty service members are enrolled. But up to now, each service established its own guidelines, and the rules could even differ from one installation to another in the same service.

As before, a service member’s enrollment in the EFMP is mandatory when a family member meets the enrollment criteria. But the updated DoD-wide policy not only standardizes those criteria, but also spells out the enrollment process.

For years, military families with special needs have detailed their problems with the availability and quality of medical care and special education. Following a February 2020 congressional hearing, lawmakers mandated EFMP standardization and improvements in the fiscal 2021 National Defense Authorization Act.

“This is exciting news for families enrolled in EFMP,” said Patricia Montes Barron, deputy assistant secretary of defense for military and community family policy, in DoD’s announcement of the changes. “These enhancements demonstrate that we are listening and focusing on ways to help families thrive in military life.”

But some knowledgeable observers argue the new policy doesn’t go far enough.

Michelle Norman is executive director and founder of the nonprofit Partners in Promise, which works to protect the rights of military children in special education and disability communities to ensure they receive equal access to education.

“While we had hoped standardization would minimize program variability, this instruction still puts many important decisions back in the hands of individual service branches,” she said.

But the new instruction is a step in the right direction, she added.

“We appreciate the hard work and many hours DoD and military service leaders poured into standardizing processes of the Exceptional Family Member Program,” Norman said.

One of its good points, she said, is requiring “warm hand-offs” during permanent change of station moves. The losing installation’s EFMP family support office hands off the family to the gaining installation’s office. That cooperative approach will, she hopes, decrease the wait times for specialized medical care and special education services and support after a PCS. Their 2022 survey data shows families are waiting more than four months for those services.

“However, we are disappointed to see the lack of standardization of special education support and resources that vary greatly between the military services,” Norman said. “Military children in special education face delays in identification, eligibility and receipt of special education support and services. EFMP parents face inconsistent support during every PCS.”

Norman said it’s “frustrating” that the instruction didn’t include requirements to collect and report data on special education disputes and their outcomes.

DoD officials say their work isn’t finished.

“Enrollment in EFMP provides families access to critical services and support, no matter their service branch or location. We will continue our work to enhance EFMP to better serve our military families,” said Gilbert R. Cisneros Jr., undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, in the DoD announcement.

One of the improvements is in the assignment coordination process. The instruction lays out the responsibilities and processes of the services’ personnel offices, the designated EFMP staff and the service member.

“This ensures the family’s special needs are considered during the assignment process,” said Tomeshia S. Barnes, associate director of DoD’s Office of Special Needs, in the announcement. “Enhancements include each service branch using the same criteria for determining the availability of services and the ability for service members to request a second review of assignment decisions.

“Importantly, service members now learn the reason for declined orders,” Barnes said.

Other actions taken to standardize the rules include:

♦ At least one personal contact with every family must be completed each year by the EFMP family support provider assigned to them. All families using their service’s respite care program will also get at least one personal contact annually. These providers help families become their own advocates by helping them identify and connect with resources, expert consultants, and education and community support. The warm hand-off during PCS can’t be counted as the annual personal contact.

♦ Requirements for disenrolling a family from EFMP are spelled out.

♦ Respite care changes will be implemented in a phased approach. These include providing a consistent number of respite care hours across the services, which will mean hours will increase for some families and decrease for others, depending on the service branch. There’s also a standard mechanism for determining eligibility and how many hours. Adult dependents are now eligible for respite care. Families will also be able to ask for additional services based on exceptional circumstances.

The services won’t be allowed to limit the availability of the respite care benefit when eligible families are also receiving external respite care services.

The instruction notes that respite care is a program benefit, not an entitlement. The instruction requires the services to monitor the provision of respite to care to ensure the programs are compliant with DoD and service-specific policies.

“While we had hoped standardization would minimize military service variability, we are hopeful that each military service takes to the opportunity to offer much needed clarification as they write their own instructions,” Norman said.

“At the end of the day, all EFMP families want is for the program to add value, not confusion.”

Staff Sgt. Kevin Iinuma
<![CDATA[Senators back 5.2% pay raise for troops, but not other salary boosts ]]>https://www.armytimes.com/pay-benefits/2023/06/23/senators-back-52-pay-raise-for-troops-but-not-other-salary-boosts/https://www.armytimes.com/pay-benefits/2023/06/23/senators-back-52-pay-raise-for-troops-but-not-other-salary-boosts/Fri, 23 Jun 2023 18:38:26 +0000Senate lawmakers backed plans for a 5.2% pay raise in their first draft of the annual defense authorization bill but held back on more aggressive plans to boost junior enlisted pay, opting instead to study the idea of higher base salaries for the lowest-paid service members.

Officials from the Senate Armed Services Committee unveiled their plans for the massive defense budget policy bill on Friday, following three days of mostly behind-the-scenes work on the legislation. It follows the House Armed Services Committee’s adoption of its own draft early Thursday morning, containing the same provisions for a 5.2% pay boost.

If that becomes law, service members would see their biggest pay raise in 22 years next January. Combined with the 2023 pay boost, troops could see their base salaries increased by almost 10% over a two-year span.

The Senate committee’s proposed $876.8 billion measure includes a host of military specialty pay and bonus reauthorizations, required annually for department recruiting and retention efforts. It also includes language similar to the House committee’s version to make housing stipend calculations more flexible, which in turn could give more money to troops for rent and mortgage costs.

Military pay overhaul could mean huge pay boosts for enlisted troops

But the Senate did not back other provisions designed to help with junior enlisted pay, including one in the House draft that would provide monthly bonuses for troops E-6 and below to counter the effects of inflation.

They also eschewed House appropriators’ plans to overhaul the military pay tables, increasing some junior enlisted pay by up to 35%. That plan, approved by the House Appropriations Committee on Thursday, would move the base salary for the lowest-ranking troops from about $24,000 to around $31,000 next year.

Instead, the Senate committee’s plan calls for a full review of military pay rates, with an eye towards changes in coming years. Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), who authored the proposal, said the goal is to find a path forward on the cost and impact of increasing junior pay, and the most efficient ways to do that.

“Looking at the pay table now, it’s just criminal,” she said, referencing the low salaries of junior enlisted troops. “We could not get outright buy-in on increases now, but we need to bring everybody together on this.”

Ernst said she is confident if military officials present a report on potential pay table increases, “It’s just a matter of time before we increase it.”

On Wednesday, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), chairwoman of the armed services committee’s personnel panel, said she believes the 5.2% pay raise will help with some of those junior financial issues, but said that boosts to child care coverage, medical care access and other quality of life programs may be more effective to help struggling military families than pay table changes.

President Joe Biden also recommended a 5.2% raise in his budget proposal earlier this year, as have House appropriators. The mark matches federal estimates for keeping military pay on pace with the raise in civilian wages in recent years.

Over the last 20 years, lawmakers have either matched or exceeded the administration’s requests on military pay boosts. Congress appears to be on track to do the same this year.

For an E-4 with three years in service, the 5.2% pay raise would mean about $1,700 more next year in take-home pay compared to 2023. For senior enlisted and junior officers, the hike equals about $3,000 more. For an O-4 with 12 years of service, it equates to more than $5,400 in extra pay in 2024.

Both chambers are expected to vote on their respective versions of the legislation later this summer, with negotiations on a final bill expected to begin before the fall. The authorization bill has been passed annually for 62 consecutive years, despite increasing partisan fighting on Capitol Hill.

Jenny Kane
<![CDATA[Pre-K for 4-year-olds to start in the fall at this DoD school in Japan]]>https://www.armytimes.com/news/your-military/2023/06/22/pre-k-for-4-year-olds-to-start-in-the-fall-at-this-dod-school-in-japan/https://www.armytimes.com/news/your-military/2023/06/22/pre-k-for-4-year-olds-to-start-in-the-fall-at-this-dod-school-in-japan/Thu, 22 Jun 2023 22:31:04 +0000Prekindergarten is opening for 4-year-olds this fall at M.C. Perry Primary School on Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan — the first in what officials hope will be universal pre-K for military children attending Department of Defense schools.

Students who turn 4 on or before Sept. 1 are eligible, subject to the existing eligibility and enrollment policies at Department of Defense Education Activity schools.

To date, 46 students are registered for pre-K at Iwakuni, and officials estimate that total enrollment could reach around 95 to 100 students, said DoDEA spokesman Will Griffin.

This will be a test run of sorts for DoDEA’s plan to bring pre-K to an estimated 6,000 eligible students across the 60 military communities served by DoDEA schools. Officials continue to plan and analyze the resources and facilities to determine what’s needed to start the pre-k programs, but all is contingent on funding.

Defense officials have asked for $90.4 million for a full-day program for all eligible 4-year-old children at DoDEA schools, according to budget documents. The defense policy and funding bills are making their way through the legislative process now.

If the funding is approved, DoDEA will start phasing in the program during school year 2024-2025. Schools in the first phase would have appropriate facilities already available; those in the second phase would require minor facility adjustments, such as bathrooms and playgrounds, according to an earlier DoDEA announcement. Those in the last phase would need more extensive modifications or construction to increase classrooms.

Officials have said the programs would be implemented over a five-year-period, but the analysis is ongoing.

“It would be premature to announce a date for full implementation until the analysis is complete and the full scope of requirements” is known, Griffin said. That could include significant renovation or construction of facilities at some locations.

Defense school officials are using funds from their fiscal 2023 budget for the early implementation at MC Perry, Griffin said.

“Early implementation in Iwakuni provides DoDEA with the opportunity to test and validate procedures and plans developed for the later system-wide rollout of universal pre-kindergarten,” Griffin said. The existing classrooms and facilities at MC Perry required minimal changes to meet specific requirements, he said.

Supporters of universal pre-K contend that earlier, high-quality education can make a positive difference in a child’s future. Some states have pre-kindergarten programs, but it’s a patchwork of different programs and eligibility.

A full-day program for 4-year-olds would also help address the critical shortage of child care at many installations, advocates have said.

Separately, President Joe Biden’s administration has proposed funding for a federal-state partnership to provide free, universal preschool for all American children.

Parents at MCAS Iwakuni who want to register their 4-year-olds can visit https://dodeasis.myfollett.com/aspen/logon.do. That log-in page says the system will be unavailable through July 3 as officials prepare for the school year.

According to the school’s Facebook page, the pre-K school day will run from 7:55 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. weekdays except Tuesday, when it will end at 1:15 p.m.

Iurii Kuzo
<![CDATA[More families file claims against Navy for Hawaii water contamination]]>https://www.armytimes.com/pay-benefits/military-benefits/health-care/2023/06/21/more-families-file-claims-against-navy-for-hawaii-water-contamination/https://www.armytimes.com/pay-benefits/military-benefits/health-care/2023/06/21/more-families-file-claims-against-navy-for-hawaii-water-contamination/Wed, 21 Jun 2023 18:28:56 +0000Another 1,002 military family members and civilians filed administrative claims against the government Tuesday, seeking monetary damages related to fuel-contaminated drinking water in Hawaii.

Under the Federal Tort Claims Act, they allege the Navy released jet fuel and other contaminants from the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Facility into the families’ drinking water at least twice in 2021 — May 6 and Nov. 20 — and didn’t immediately disclose the incidents.

This brings the total to 1,499 administrative claims filed against the Navy, said Kristina Baehr, founder of Just Well Law, one of three law firms representing nearly 3,000 people affected by the water crisis. These SF-95 administrative claims are required before individuals can sue the government. If their claims are denied, they will join the pending federal court lawsuit in Honolulu. To date, the government hasn’t granted any of the administrative claims, Baehr said. The claims are generally seeking monetary damages related to medical issues and medical monitoring now and possibly for the rest of their lives.

“The Navy has accepted responsibility for contaminating our clients’ drinking water with jet fuel,” Baehr said. “But the Navy refuses to accept responsibility for any long-term harm. These claims offer the Navy an opportunity to make it right, just as they have promised.”

Navy officials in Hawaii didn’t comment before publication, but in the past officials have declined to comment on these cases, citing pending litigation.

More clients are contacting the attorneys every day, Baehr said. The statute of limitations for filing the administrative claims expires in November, and the attorneys expect to continue taking clients until Aug. 15, to allow enough time to meet the deadline. “I want to be sure we get what we need from people to file their claims,” she said.

There are currently 296 plaintiffs in the federal case, she said. Baehr’s firm, Just Well Law, the Hosoda Law Group and Motley Rice LLC are representing the people alleging they were affected by the tainted water.

All told, more than 93,000 individuals were affected, from 9,715 households in 19 different communities on the Navy water system of Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. They include residents of two Army communities and Air Force communities in the Hickam side. Some Hawaiian civilians were also affected, living in homes supplied by Navy water.

On Nov. 28, 2021, military families reported smelling fuel odors and seeing an oily film in their tap water. But some had reported mysterious abdominal pain, vomiting, memory loss, skin rashes, eye irritation, and teeth and gum issues even before the signs of fuel appeared. At first, Navy officials told residents it was okay to drink the water.

“The Navy knew that there was fuel in the water and yet reassured residents for days that ‘there was no indication that the water was not safe to drink,’” Baehr said.

'Why weren't you there to protect us?' Hawaii military families grill Navy leaders about toxic water

She said 67% of her firm’s clients are still experiencing health problems after the 2021 contaminations.

“The majority of my clients are still sick more than 18 months later,” she said. “And yet this was entirely preventable — if only the Navy had told them to stop drinking the water that the Navy knew was contaminated.”

Two-thirds of their clients have experienced neurological symptoms, and two-thirds have had skin problems; 56% have had reported gastrointestinal problems; and 41% respiratory problems, Baehr said.

Nearly half of the firm’s clients have moved out of their contaminated houses. Of those who stayed, 83% couldn’t afford to leave. Of those who moved, 87% moved off the island, she said. In addition, 12% of their clients have lost wages related to the crisis.

In early December, 2021, military officials offered families the option to move to hotels at government expense, and thousands did so. Water, laundry services and shower facilities were provided to those who chose to stay in their houses.

After massive flushing operations and testing — overseen by a joint working group of experts from the Navy and Army, the Hawaii Department of Health, and the Environmental Protection Agency — the water in the last of 19 zones was declared safe to drink on March 18, 2022.

On March 7, 2022, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin announced his decision to close the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility, and to remove the fuel reserves from the 20 underground tanks, redistributing the fuel across the Indo-Pacific region. Officials have begun the process to defuel and shut down the tanks.

Cpl. Hannah Adams
<![CDATA[Employment proposal may help military spouses, but it could hurt, too]]>https://www.armytimes.com/news/pentagon-congress/2023/06/21/employment-proposal-may-help-military-spouses-but-it-could-hurt-too/https://www.armytimes.com/news/pentagon-congress/2023/06/21/employment-proposal-may-help-military-spouses-but-it-could-hurt-too/Wed, 21 Jun 2023 14:24:43 +0000A U.S. lawmaker wants to give military spouses employment protections similar to those given to activated Guard and Reserve troops returning to civilian jobs, but some experts worry it will cause more harm than good.

The legislation, introduced June 7 by Rep. Chris Deluzio, D-Pa., a member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, would incorporate spouses into most of the provisions of the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act — and go further.

This new proposal, for example, would add a provision giving spouses reemployment rights if their absence from a job is due to a permanent change of station move and the absence doesn’t exceed two consecutive years, or up to five years cumulatively.

USERRA protects military members and veterans from public or private employment discrimination on the basis of service, and allows them to return to their civilian jobs following a period of uniformed service.

The Department of Labor included the request for proposed changes to USERRA in its fiscal 2024 budget request, asking for 10 positions and $5.8 million to implement it.

Although military spouse unemployment isn’t tracked by the Bureau of Labor Statistics on a regular basis, surveys show the unemployment rate among military spouses has remained at above 20% for more than 10 years.

“Maintaining traditional employment and advancing in careers while relocating every few years — often while raising a family — has historically been an enormous challenge for military spouses,” Deluzio said in a statement provided to Military Times. “By expanding USERRA protections we can make sure military families have more options and military spouses can more easily find employment and feel confident in their job security.”

But lawmakers and advocates had questions — and mixed opinions — about the proposal during a June 14 hearing before the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs economic opportunity subcommittee.

“I have deep reservations about this,” said Rep. Derrick Van Orden, R-Wisc., the panel’s chairman. “I don’t think it’s the United States government’s place to exercise these mandates on companies when the person that’s involved didn’t sign [a military service] contract.”

Biden looks to boost military spouse employment with new order

Van Orden also questioned whether it could have unintended consequences for spouses and employers.

The Enlisted Association of the National Guard of the United States supports the change, said Kevin Hollinger, the group’s legislative director. “We believe if there was a contract that was signed with the United States government, it was called ‘I do,’” he told lawmakers.

In his written statement, Hollinger said the change could benefit National Guard spouses who face increased family hardships when the service member deploys. “Spouses often must take time away from their employment to figure out new schedules. At a moment’s notice, they become the sole head of the house. Handling time off is often the only way for spouses to get acclimated.”

But under the Family and Medical Leave Act, “military spouses already have the right to take time off of work for deployment and reintegration specific needs,” said Meredith M. Smith, government relations deputy director of the National Military Family Association, in written testimony.

“We are concerned that the requirement to hold a position open for a military spouse following a military-ordered move would be seen as burdensome by employers, potentially making them less likely to hire spouses,” Smith said.

While USERRA aims to meet the needs of reservists who return to their civilian community when not activated, that’s not necessarily the case for military spouses.

“Most active duty military spouses, in particular, do not have a reasonable expectation they will return to a duty station if they have to leave their job due to military orders,” Smith said.

And more generally, businesses might become hesitant to hire spouses because of potential litigation, costs, administrative burdens and questions about how the legislation possibly conflicts with state laws relating to pension systems.

“We are concerned about the unintended consequences,” Smith told lawmakers. “We think the spirit of the legislation is good, to ensure military spouses are able to find and maintain employment, but we have questions about whether or not USERRA is the appropriate tool to ensure that is a reality for military families.”

The USERRA expansion might be helpful in federal government employment, however, Smith noted. Under the proposal, the federal agency would have to ensure, to the maximum extent possible, that military spouses would be reemployed.

“Adopting this provision would be an important step to helping the federal government reach its goal of becoming an employer of choice for military spouses,” Smith said. But further clarification is needed on which reasons for leaving a position would qualify for the reemployment provisions, she noted.

James Rodriguez, the Department of Labor’s assistant secretary for Veterans’ Employment and Training Service, said the department “wholeheartedly supports” the idea.

“Expanding USERRA’s anti-discrimination and reemployment protections to eligible military spouses would limit barriers to military spouse employment,” he said. These protections “would also help military spouses build successful careers without frequent interruption and restarts; bolster the financial stability of their families, especially during their service member’s transition from military service to civilian life; and promote long-term financial stability for military families.”

Asked by Van Orden whether he thought there is potential for waste, fraud and abuse, Rodriguez replied, “I don’t believe military spouses would take advantage of the system that’s there to support them. I believe they actually want to work, and they’re looking for opportunities to work and looking for opportunities to keep their jobs so they can support their families. I think that’s a misrepresentation of military spouses.”

As for concerns about the federal government overreaching into private industry, Rodriguez said, “think it’s important for us in the federal government to help work with our private industries to get them to understand why spouses’ retention and employment is so important to the service of the individual.”

Smith at NMFA suggested two alternative steps that have long been advocated by various groups: tracking military spouse unemployment and adding military spouses as a target group under the Work Opportunity Tax Credit. This would give employers a tax credit for hiring military spouses.

“It is also an incentivizing tool for employers rather than one that could be viewed as causing potential staffing burdens,” she said.

Van Orden, a retired Navy SEAL senior chief, said he understands the hardships of spouses, having been married to his Navy wife for 30 years.

However, he said, “we have to balance fiscal responsibility with also making sure the civil liberties of individual companies are not violated. They are entities with people, too, and we have to make sure we don’t upset the apple cart of the workforce by creating unintended consequences,” he said.

“Let’s see if we can get this right.” In military spouses, he said, “We have the most highly educated and highly unemployed demographic in the country. If we can do something, I’m more than happy to do that. I just want to make sure we get it correct.”

<![CDATA[Lawmakers eyeing even more boosts to junior enlisted pay ]]>https://www.armytimes.com/pay-benefits/2023/06/16/lawmakers-eyeing-even-more-boosts-to-junior-enlisted-pay/https://www.armytimes.com/pay-benefits/2023/06/16/lawmakers-eyeing-even-more-boosts-to-junior-enlisted-pay/Fri, 16 Jun 2023 18:25:00 +0000In the last two weeks, House lawmakers have proposed huge increases to junior enlisted pay, monthly bonuses for those servicemembers to help deal with inflation, and new reforms to boost housing and assistance stipends to ensure their families don’t face financial struggles.

But even more proposals for those troops may be on the way in months to come.

The Republican-controlled House Armed Services Committee’s new quality of life panel — announced at the start of this year — is set to begin public hearings and site visits next month, according to its chairman, Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb. The 11-member group is expected to work throughout the summer and fall on a host of military personnel and families issues, with an eye towards policy recommendations early next year.

In a sit-down with reporters this week, Bacon said the top focus of the panel would be an examination of junior enlisted pay, and whether wages given to those troops are enough to ensure stability and morale for their families.

Military pay overhaul could mean huge pay boosts for enlisted troops

“We need to verify how much of a problem this is, find out how many are on food stamps, and look at what we need to do to fix that,” he said. “What are the possible remedies? That’s one of the first things I want to jump on.”

Bacon plans at least two public hearings a month from the panel, with witnesses including Defense Department officials and outside advocacy groups. Other topics of focus will include military housing costs, health care access, spouse employment and daycare availability.

But the junior enlisted finances focus underscores promises over the last year from House leaders to look out for the lowest-paid service members, and find ways to relieve stress that could distract them from their military responsibilities.

Currently, enlisted troops just out of boot camp earn roughly $22,000 in base pay their first year. Depending on how quickly they advance in rank, they can make more than $33,000 within their first three years.

Those totals don’t include additional financial help such as housing stipends (which can almost double troops’ pay, depending on where they are stationed) and free medical care. Still, lawmakers have noted that while federal minimum wage pays government contractors at least $31,000 annually, thousands of troops don’t receive that much in basic pay.

House lawmakers back plans for biggest military pay raise in 22 years

The full House Armed Services Committee is scheduled to consider its draft of the annual defense authorization bill on June 21, which includes language providing monthly bonuses for troops E-6 and below. The exact amounts would be determined by Pentagon officials after passage of the legislation, but the idea is to help shield troops from some of the negative effects of rising inflation costs.

Committee lawmakers also want to bump up housing stipends and reconfigure rules regarding the Basic Needs Allowance, which provides extra financial help to military families living at or near the federal poverty line.

Meanwhile, the House Appropriations Committee on June 15 advanced its defense spending plan for fiscal 2024 which includes an overhaul of the military pay tables for junior enlisted service members.

Under the plan, even the lowest-ranking troops would make at least $31,000 annually in base pay annually, and individuals up to E-5 would see increases in their take-home wages.

In a statement, Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Calif. and chairman of the appropriations committee’s defense panel, said the new pay scales will “take a big step towards relieving some of the financial stress felt by service members and their families, as well as helping our services meet their recruiting goals.”

Whether either of those ideas will survive congressional negotiations is unclear. Both bills also include a host of controversial provisions regarding Defense Department diversity training, LGBTQ outreach and abortion services.

But Bacon and Rep. Chrissy Houlahan, D-Pa. — who will serve as ranking member — said if those kinds of ideas don’t survive political fights this year, they’ll look to push them forward again early next year.

“These moves could be expensive,” Bacon said. “This could take several years to get done. So we’ll just take one thing at a time.”

Senior Airman Matthew Angulo
<![CDATA[Military retiree COLA may shrink in 2024. Here’s why that’s OK.]]>https://www.armytimes.com/pay-benefits/military-retirement/2023/06/16/military-retiree-cola-may-shrink-in-2024-heres-why-thats-ok/https://www.armytimes.com/pay-benefits/military-retirement/2023/06/16/military-retiree-cola-may-shrink-in-2024-heres-why-thats-ok/Fri, 16 Jun 2023 15:45:52 +0000After the largest cost-of-living adjustment in four decades in 2023, the increase in annuities for retired government workers, military retirees and veterans is projected to be much lower next year — and that’s good news, according to financial advisers.

Under a measure signed into law by President Joe Biden on June 14, military retirees and veterans will see a cost-of-living boost equal to the raise Social Security recipients will receive. The two sets of benefits have been linked for decades, but federal rules still mandate that Congress pass the mirror legislative each year.

In a statement, Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jon Tester, D-Mont., said pairing veterans’ benefits increases with other federal payouts will protect family finances “at a time when folks are struggling with rising costs, from housing to groceries.”

But those costs aren’t rising as fast as they were just a year ago.

The baseline COLA for next year is estimated to be 2.7%, according to the Senior Citizens League, a nonpartisan advocacy group that seeks to educate Americans on retirement issues. The In 2023, the COLA boost surged to 8.7%, giving federal and military retirees and veterans the highest inflation increase in their benefits since the early 1980s. Now, inflation rates are slowly leveling out after reaching a four-decade high in 2022, and in response, the COLA — which is based on inflation figures from July through September — is projected to be much more modest.

“Having a low COLA is actually a good thing,” said Dallen Haws, a financial planner for Haws Federal Advisers, in an interview with sister publication Federal Times. “It means inflation is relatively low. The moment it starts getting higher, it lags more.”

For federal employees, COLAs apply differently depending on the government retirement plan in which they are enrolled. The Federal Employee Retirement System includes those who entered the civil service beginning in 1984, and the Civil Service Retirement System applies to those working for Uncle Sam before that date.

For military retirees and veterans, and those collecting Social Security and annuities under the CSRS, the COLA is equal to the Consumer Price Index for Clerical Workers — the average change in prices of consumer goods over time. These adjustments, while a helpful buffer against economic instability, were never intended to fully make up for losses in value of their retirement checks, Haws and others said. COLAs are a reactive adjustment to inflation, meaning that by the time retirees sees them in their benefit checks, their money — in reality — is already behind.

“The challenge for people is that we haven’t truly seen a reduction in costs and the thing that people spend most of their money on,” said Thiago Glieger, a private wealth expert for Maryland-based RMG Advisors. “If you look at what grocery bills are, from what they were a year ago, it’s arguably still really, really high.”

The CPI-W increased 3.6% in the last 12 months — the lowest increase since March 2021, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

To illustrate that, consider that as of January, the inflation rate of the CPI-W was actually lower than the 2023 COLA, so that difference could mean a retiree with average benefits of $1,694 could get a $52 monthly increase in their buying power, the Senior Citizens League said.

On the other hand, that difference may be hardly noticeable since inflation took such a large chunk out of value in the last two years. The average Social Security benefit fell behind by $1,054.

Thrift Savings Plan

For those not ready to retire, experts urged prioritizing a savings account, like the Thrift Savings Plans, to create a stable source of income in times of volatility.

So how can feds and military members save effectively?

“Sometimes people get a little scared because the markets can be volatile and maybe they don’t invest as aggressively as they should,” Glieger said.

In other instances, as experts have seen in the past few months, the I Fund of the TSP has been outperforming the other investments. Glieger said he has seen hundreds of millions of dollars invested into the I Fund as news of its good returns spread.

However, he warned against chasing trends and instead urged federal employees and troops to have a well-informed plan that is more proactive than reactive. Otherwise, they may only take advantage of a hot rate when it’s about to cool off.

Remember, too, that the 2.7% COLA is just an estimate. The actual COLA for 2024 will be determined by how much the CPI-W changed in the third quarter of this year compared with last year. The final number will be announced in October and becomes effective on Dec. 1. Adjustments appear in January checks.

Reporter Leo Shane III contributed to this story.

Master Sgt. Olufemi owolabi
<![CDATA[Military retirees to be booted from bases in Turkey. Who’s next? ]]>https://www.armytimes.com/pay-benefits/military-retirement/2023/06/15/military-retirees-to-be-booted-from-bases-in-turkey-whos-next/https://www.armytimes.com/pay-benefits/military-retirement/2023/06/15/military-retirees-to-be-booted-from-bases-in-turkey-whos-next/Thu, 15 Jun 2023 19:59:43 +0000Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include changes at Aviano Air Base, Italy, related to DoD civilian retiree ID cards.

Military retirees living in Turkey have been put on notice that, beginning in fiscal 2024, they will not have access to U.S. military bases in that country — but they have just received a 3½ month reprieve from the original June 15 cutoff date.

The memo rescinding the Thursday deadline was issued June 13 by Air Force Col. Calvin B. Powell, commander of the 39th Air Base Wing at Incirlik Air Base. The restrictions are now scheduled to take effect Oct. 1. Powell’s original memo, dated May 27, gave retirees roughly two weeks’ notice.

“The United States’ bilateral agreements with Turkey do not permit U.S. Forces to extend [Status of Forces Agreement] privileges or access to installations, facilities and activities to retirees,” according to Powell’s June 13 memo.

Turkey isn’t the only country where changes are being considered. Officials at Aviano Air Base, Italy, are “looking into potential access changes,” said Air Force Capt. Mark Goss, a spokesman for U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Air Forces Africa. “At this time we cannot confirm if/when this change may take place” at Aviano, he said. “If there is a change in installation access policies, wing leadership will communicate this to those affected.”

Goss later provided updated information about changes at Aviano. As of Aug. 31, DoD civilian retiree ID cards will no longer be valid, regardless of the expiration date.

These retirees will now be required to get a Real ID or Real ID Act-compliant driver’s license from their state, and must register with the 31st Security Forces Squadron Visitor Control Center, using their Real ID and a Standard Form-50.

“Installation access for DoD civilian retirees will be at the discretion of the installation commander,” Goss said. “Retired uniformed service members will not lose base access on Aug. 31.

“Any changes will be in accordance with U.S. and Italian installation access policies,” he said. “The 31st Fighter Wing will continue to work with the host nation to ensure all those who served continue to have access to Aviano Air Base, Italy.”

Changes in the Philippines regarding access to military postal services had also been in the works last year, but were put on hold.

For retirees in Turkey, it means they are prohibited from shopping at commissaries and Army and Air Force Exchange Service locations, according to Powell’s memo. Retirees also will not be authorized to use military postal services beyond Oct. 1. It revokes access to the Defense Enrollment Eligibility Reporting System and ID card offices, the Tricare representative, legal offices, and every other service available on the installations and geographically separated units.

The new rules apply to Incirlik Air Base, Izmir Air Station and Ankara Air Station, as well as the 425th Air Base Squadron and 717th Air Base Squadron, two geographically separated units.

“This impacts a lot of retired U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force NCOs and their families,” said one retiree, who asked to remain anonymous. “Retirees have had access for years. Many living here depend on the APO lifeline for Tricare and VA medication refills.”

Express Scripts Pharmacy can only mail Tricare prescription medications to U.S.-based addresses, State Department Pouch Mail and APO/FPO/DPO addresses.

A big concern for him, he said, is voting. Retirees in Turkey and elsewhere rely on the APO mail system to vote in U.S. elections. The military postal service is more reliable for getting their ballots from local election officials in the U.S. and returning them in time to be counted.

In the summer of 2022, military retirees in the Philippines were told their military mail privileges would be cut off, but that decision was put on hold pending further review by defense officials.

According to Department of Defense actuarial tables, there were 121 military retirees living in Turkey as of September 2020. The new rules also affect their widows and dependents.

The number could be an undercount, the retiree stated, because it probably doesn’t count retirees who live in Turkey half the year.

Goss said the decision was a result of a “comprehensive review of the mission sets of the 39th Air Base Wing units in Turkiye, force protection conditions, resources and manning, and all relevant agreements, laws and regulations” to ensure compliance in international agreements with Turkey, and to ensure that their geographically separated units “remain effective in their mission.”

In effect, this allows base privileges for those from other countries, but not for military retirees, the retiree said.

“In Izmir, the U.S. air facility is about three miles from NATO Land Command headquarters,” the retiree said. “Its sole purpose is to support NATO. Now our allies can use the [exchange] and commissary, but long-serving American military retirees can’t. In Ankara, it is the same. While retirees in Incirlik have not had access for years because it is a Turkish-flagged air base, they have been able to visit Ankara or Izmir.”

Officials are not rescinding the retirees’ privileges per se, he said. “They’re just barring access to the buildings,” which has the same effect.

At Aviano Air Base, word has gotten out that changes in base access may be afoot, said the son of one military widow. His mother needs to be able to go the credit union and post office, he said.

“Her Social Security and survivor’s benefits come to her credit union [on Aviano], and they are getting more stringent about requiring account holders to come in person,” he said.

She’s elderly and in poor health, he said, and needs someone to drive her and help her about. But over the past year, she has also had more trouble in getting access for her sons to bring her on base, although they have U.S. passports.

Staff Sgt. Joshua Joseph Magbanua
<![CDATA[Military pay overhaul could mean huge pay boosts for enlisted troops]]>https://www.armytimes.com/pay-benefits/2023/06/14/military-pay-overhaul-could-mean-huge-pay-boosts-for-enlisted-troops/https://www.armytimes.com/pay-benefits/2023/06/14/military-pay-overhaul-could-mean-huge-pay-boosts-for-enlisted-troops/Wed, 14 Jun 2023 18:31:23 +0000This story was updated at 3:45 pm EDT.

Junior enlisted troops could see their monthly pay boosted by up to 35% next year under a massive rewrite of the military’s pay tables proposed under a House Republican defense appropriations plan released Wednesday.

The move would guarantee that even the lowest-ranking service members would make at least $31,000 annually in base pay — roughly equivalent to a $15-an-hour wage. Troops also receive other financial compensation in the form of housing stipends, free health care coverage and food stipends.

The proposal — which still has to survive numerous rounds of negotiations on Capitol Hill — comes in direct response to concerns that thousands of military families are living at or below the federal poverty line, struggling to keep up with rising inflation costs.

Troops could see monthly bonuses, better housing pay under House plan

But other junior enlisted troops would benefit from the plan as well. Most troops ranked E-5 and below would see boosts under the budget plan. An E-3 with three years service would see his or her annual salary jump from just under $31,000 to more than $35,000 under the plan. An E-4 with six years in service would see annual pay go from about $36,500 to $38,500.

Those pay boosts are separate from a proposed 5.2% pay raise for troops starting next January, meaning that the affected enlisted troops would see an even bigger increase in their take home pay.

But the costs of the plan are unclear. Senate Democrats and White House officials have not indicated whether they will go along with the proposal, or if the money needed to pay for it may cut into other federal programming priorities.

Linked to legislation the Biden White House would likely veto

The pay table overhaul is included in a GOP-written budget plan that also bans the Defense Department from providing abortion assistance to troops, medical care to transgender individuals or diversity training to anyone. Those items are unlikely to gain any support from Democratic lawmakers, putting the future of the whole bill into question.

Junior enlisted pay has been a major focus of lawmakers in recent years. As many as 22,000 active-duty military service members and their families qualify for federal food assistance, earning so little that they are at or below the federal poverty line, according to past government studies.

Last week, lawmakers on the House Armed Services Committee unveiled plans for monthly bonus pay for troops rank E-6 and below next year, to be awarded “as economic conditions dictate.” The exact amounts would be determined by Pentagon officials after passage of the legislation.

Overhauling the military pay tables could minimize the need for those bonuses. Under the appropriations proposal, troops ranked E-1 with at least four months service would see their yearly basic pay increased by more than $8,000 under the changes, a huge financial boon for those families.

Budget bill bans military abortions, transgender care, diversity work

Even with the increases, however, most enlisted troops would still earn significantly less than officers. An O-1 with less than two years of service earns about $43,500 annually.

The budget bill — scheduled to be debated behind closed doors by the House Appropriations panel on Thursday and publicly later in June — calls for $826.5 billion in defense spending for fiscal 2024. That matches the levels agreed upon by White House negotiators and House Republican leaders earlier this month.

Senate appropriators have not yet offered their Defense Department funding plans for fiscal 2024, or signaled if they will have similar changes to military pay tables next year. Both chambers must agree upon a new spending plan for the military by Oct. 1 or risk a partial shutdown of defense operations and programs.

Sgt. Jennifer Schubert
<![CDATA[Health officials reverse decision on pregnant women at Kadena Air Base]]>https://www.armytimes.com/pay-benefits/military-benefits/health-care/2023/06/09/health-officials-reverse-decision-on-pregnant-women-at-kadena-air-base/https://www.armytimes.com/pay-benefits/military-benefits/health-care/2023/06/09/health-officials-reverse-decision-on-pregnant-women-at-kadena-air-base/Fri, 09 Jun 2023 17:32:18 +0000Defense Health Agency officials say they have found a way to fill personnel gaps at Naval Hospital Okinawa and have reversed course on a decision that would have forced pregnant women at Kadena Air Base to deliver their babies elsewhere.

The naval hospital, a 16 minute drive from the air base, is the only U.S. military medical option on the island. The women had been notified that, due to a staffing shortage, they would either have to deliver their babies at a Japanese hospital, where they wouldn’t be guaranteed admittance, or return to the continental U.S. when they were 7½ months pregnant.

Pregnant women at Kadena Air Base in Japan facing tough decisions

“Additional military, civilian and contracted staffing is being actively worked to fill the gaps caused by personnel moves and to ensure the same level of care is readily available in support of our service members and families,” DHA officials announced June 8, just hours after a Military Times report on the women’s plight.

The hospital is “not on divert, and there is no change in current capability,” they stated.

The staffing constraints at the hospital were caused by the “summer permanent change of station cycle and unanticipated early departure of civilian staff,” officials stated.

Advocates welcomed the change.

“It’s what we were hoping for, that the pregnant mothers would be able to deliver on Okinawa,” said Elayne Saejung, an Air Force wife who has been an advocate for families on Okinawa.

“There are still questions that remain about the original staffing shortage, and whether they have resolved the staffing issue,” she said. “But this is definitely great news for the families on Okinawa.”

The chief of medical staff at Kadena’s 18th Medical Group had issued a detailed, two-page memo June 7 stating that pregnant women with an estimated due date from August through November would have to choose whether to deliver their babies at a local Japanese facility or be flown back to a military treatment facility in the the continental United States — no later than 34 weeks into their pregnancy. Medical personnel had already begun contacting patients about the requirement.

Advocates described this as a “logistical nightmare” for women.

The memo also included caveats regarding Japanese medical facilities, including that, unlike medical facilities in the U.S., Japanese law doesn’t require hospitals to accept patients in labor or to provide health care in an emergency.

In response to Military Times’ questions earlier Thursday, DHA officials said they were “fully aware of the situation at Naval Hospital Okinawa” and were “working with hospital leadership as well as the leadership of the DHA Region Indo-Pacific to determine the best next steps for those in need.”

Military must find new ways to deal with medical personnel shortages

That included “actively looking for expediting civilian hiring, contract solutions and temporary assignment of military personnel from across the Department of Defense to mitigate the acute shortage of obstetric support for the women in the Indo-Pacific area,” a spokesman said.

<![CDATA[Pregnant women at Kadena Air Base in Japan facing tough decisions]]>https://www.armytimes.com/pay-benefits/military-benefits/health-care/2023/06/08/pregnant-women-at-kadena-air-base-in-japan-facing-tough-decisions/https://www.armytimes.com/pay-benefits/military-benefits/health-care/2023/06/08/pregnant-women-at-kadena-air-base-in-japan-facing-tough-decisions/Thu, 08 Jun 2023 23:02:16 +0000Pregnant women at Kadena Air Base in Japan are being notified they won’t be able to deliver their babies at U.S. Naval Hospital Okinawa, the only full-servce medical center on the island, due to a staffing shortage.

Women at Kadena whose estimated due date is from August through November are being given a choice: Either go to a Japanese medical facility or be placed in a “Stork Nesting” program in which they’ll be flown to a location in the continental United States, according to a June 7 memorandum signed by Air Force Lt. Col. Travis C. Russell, chief of the medical staff at Kadena’s 18th Medical Group. The staffing shortage is expected to be resolved by the end of the year, he stated.

Available information indicates this affects women at Kadena, but not elsewhere on Okinawa. It was not immediately clear whether it applies to active duty women.

“Right now, spouses in the community are completely shocked,” said Rachel, an Air Force wife who is one of a group of advocates for dependent health care at Kadena. She asked that her last name not be used.

“Every individual I have spoken to has expressed extreme concern and anger,” she said. “As mothers, our hearts are broken that women are being put in this situation: to choose whether to give birth away from their home or to give birth out in town, where access to care is not a right, and can absolutely be denied.”

Advocates describe the alternative as a “logistical nightmare.” If women choose to have their babies delivered stateside, the must get a referral from their health care provider no later than 28 weeks into their pregnancy and must by off the island six weeks later, at 34 weeks, or at 7½ months.

The memo states the women will be referred to a continental U.S. military treatment facility, but information was not immediately available about whether they would have a choice of a facility that might be close to family, or whether a civilian hospital in the U.S. is an option. And while lodging at government expense is authorized, it’s not clear whether women would be given an advance. The memo states the travelers are required to keep their receipts.

A “non-medical attendant,” such as the spouse, is authorized, but not until four weeks before the delivery, the memo stated. “This may result in time away from family members, and recovery in a hotel type setting,” Russell acknowledged in the memo. Being off island by 34 weeks into the pregnancy means that their spouse or other non-medical attendant won’t be there for the full period of time before delivery, which is generally 40 weeks of gestation.

Elayne Saejung, an Air Force wife who has been an advocate for families on Okinawa, said there are many questions that remain unanswered, such as concerns about pregnant women with young children, including school-aged children, who would need to follow their pregnant mother to the stateside location “or rely on an operational active duty member with irregular work hours.”

Then, she said, there is the issue of getting passports for new babies who will be traveling with their mothers to Okinawa. Saejung, whose background is in public health and health care emergency management, just returned to the U.S. after three years in Okinawa.

Military must find new ways to deal with medical personnel shortages

Rachel said she spoke with one spouse who was given 24 hours to decide whether she would stay on Okinawa or go stateside for delivery. Once the decision is made, it cannot be changed.

“She has young children and a spouse who is on active duty, so leaving the island to give birth did not seem feasible for her,” Rachel said. “She shed tears and she made her decision. We can only pray that the health of her, her child and her family will not be jeopardized.”

In his memo, Russell laid out caveats of getting care in a Japanese medical facility. While these facilities have not been historically used, he said, “the Defense Health Agency maintains confidence in these facilities, especially given Japan’s maternity mortality rate is on par with other developed nations.”

Russell’s memo noted:

♦ Epidurals or spinal anesthesia, common pain relief methods used during labor in the U.S., are used in only about 5% of obstetric cases in Japan, because of cultural and medical practice differences.

♦ While U.S. law requires hospitals to provide care to anyone needing emergency health care regardless of citizenship, legal status or ability to pay, this doesn’t apply in Japan. “Importantly, Japanese law does not require hospitals to accept patients who are in labor, so you may need to seek alternative delivery locations at the last minute,” he stated.

As a public health professional, Saejung said, she wants people to understand that this situation doesn’t absolve Naval Hospital Okinawa of its responsibility under U.S. law to treat anyone needing emergency care, so if any of these women do have an emergency, they are able to go to the emergency room at the hospital.

♦ After a vaginal delivery without complications, women may be required to stay in the hospital for seven to 10 days, compared to usual stays of fewer than 48 hours in the U.S. The length of stay after a cesarean section is also longer.

♦ There’s a language barrier. A translator will be provided to help with communication, but they may not be available 24/7. Thus, there could be periods of time when there’s a language barrier, “which could result in less optimal outcomes,” he stated.

♦ Obstetric appointments may last two to four hours in some facilities, and child care must be arranged, as young children typically aren’t allowed at these appointments.

♦ Japanese facilities accommodate patients with a higher body mass index, but some studies show that women with higher BMIs are at greater risk for complications in Japan, compared to the U.S., Russell noted.

Military leaders on Kadena, including the Medical Group, “are advocates and consistently on the side of the spouses and their patients,” Rachel said. But since medical facilities have come under control of the Defense Health Agency, “there seems to be less power in the hands of local leadership.”

“We would ask the DHA to communicate with local leadership in order to make sure shortages like this do not happen,” she said.

Peter Graves, a spokesman for the agency said it is “fully aware of the situation at Naval Hospital Okinawa and the impact it may have on expectant mothers who utilize the facility.”

“We are working with hospital leadership as well as the leadership of the DHA Region Indo-Pacific to determine the best next steps for those in need,” he said. “We are actively looking for expediting civilian hiring, contract solutions and temporary assignment of military personnel from across the Department of Defense to mitigate the acute shortage of obstetric support for the women in the Indo-Pacific area.”

Information was not immediately available about other U.S. installations in the region that have similar shortages.

Many members of the military community on Okinawa are frustrated because they have long been aware of the staffing shortages and know that dozens of military spouses are qualified medical professionals, said Saejung. It is not entirely clear why they can’t be hired.

In a January interview, the new director of the Defense Health Agency, Lt. Gen. Telita Crosland, noted that the military medical system has to find new ways to deal with medical personnel shortages, which are also being felt in the civilian medical community. She noted, for example, that the United States is projected to fall 250,000 to 300,000 nurses short of available positions.

In a Jan. 24 town hall meeting in Hawaii, Secretary of the Army Christine Wormuth told soldiers and families that everywhere she goes, she hears requests for more access to doctors.

“We want the DHA to recognize the importance of their role in making health care accessible to the dependent population,” Rachel said. “Most of the time, the argument we get back is that military treatment facilities are for military members only. That works when there is available health care off base. But in Japan, that is not the case … and now our mothers and new babies are feeling the brunt of it.”

<![CDATA[Nearly $2M available for military families in Guam after typhoon]]>https://www.armytimes.com/news/your-military/2023/06/07/nearly-2m-available-for-military-families-in-guam-after-typhoon/https://www.armytimes.com/news/your-military/2023/06/07/nearly-2m-available-for-military-families-in-guam-after-typhoon/Wed, 07 Jun 2023 02:58:56 +0000In the wake of Super Typhoon Mawar’s destruction on May 24, many residents of Guam, including hundreds of military members and families, are still without power. Now, military relief societies have stepped in with $1.7 million in grants to help families after the devastation, including replacing food that spoiled during the power outages.

Since the storm, Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society has provided more than $820,000 in grants to 1,748 active duty members and 55 retirees, according to an announcement from the relief society.

“As the extent of the damage becomes clear, service members are in dire need of support,” the announcement read. “Naval Base Guam realized incredible damage, has no power and our military personnel have suffered immeasurable losses and disruptions to their lives.” The grants for immediate needs are for basics such as shelter, food, water and gas.

Direct donations to help those affected by the storm can be made by visiting support.nmcrs.org/a/typhoonmawar

According to the installation’s Facebook page, as of 12:30 p.m. Guam time June 6, “Due to the island wide power outage, [Naval Base Guam] is without power throughout the installation. Critical base services are running on generator power.”

Here’s how other agencies are helping:

Air Force Aid Society: As of June 6, the relief society has provided $715,200 in grants to airmen and guardians living in Guam who were affected by the super typhoon. That includes grants to retirees. The primary needs are food, water and incidentals, said Robert York, chief mission advancement officer for the relief society.

“We have had a tremendous need in Guam for support and our team is working 24/7 to assist our airmen and guardians,” York said. To donate, visit www.afas.org . About 2,000 airmen and guardians are stationed on Guam, mostly at Andersen Air Force Base.

Coast Guard: More than 800 Coast Guard members, including active duty, civilian employees, auxiliarists and their families have been affected in recent weeks. To date Coast Guard Mutual Assistance has provided $128,500 in grants to 164 clients, including 146 active duty, 14 Reserve and four civilians, according to Erica Chapman, fundraising manager for the relief society. Requests so far have been for food loss and property damage, she said.

The organization provides disaster grants up to $13,500 to help with recovery. Retired Rear Adm. Cari Batson Thomas, the organization’s chief executive, urges personnel who need assistance to contact the personnel support team at 833-872-4778, or CGMA at https://cgmahq.org/hurricaneassistance .

Those who wish to donate can visit https://secure.qgiv.com/for/dire/

Army Emergency Relief: While there are fewer soldiers based on Guam, Army Emergency Relief has received 60 applications from soldiers there. AER is providing $600 in grants, for a total of $36,000 thus far.

To donate, visit https://www.armyemergencyrelief.org/ .

Other assistance: The military exchanges’ Military Star card is automatically providing a 90-day grace period of 0% interest and no payments on existing balances and new purchases beginning on June 5. Standard account terms will apply after 90 days.

In addition, Navy Federal Credit Union is offering its nearly 38,000 members on Guam the ability to apply for an emergency assistance loan with an interest rate of 4.5%, with loan amounts from $250 to $5,000, and a maximum term of 24 months. Those who have existing loans with Navy Federal may be able to defer payments. For assistance, call 800-336-3767. Members who are existing cardholders can request a credit card limit increase, and can request that credit card late fees be refunded. Visit Navy Federal’s Emergency Assistance page for more details.

<![CDATA[Thrift Savings Plan participants sue over access to funds]]>https://www.armytimes.com/acquisition/regulations/2023/06/02/thrift-savings-plan-participants-sue-over-access-to-funds/https://www.armytimes.com/acquisition/regulations/2023/06/02/thrift-savings-plan-participants-sue-over-access-to-funds/Fri, 02 Jun 2023 16:20:10 +0000Editor’s note: This story was updated at 12:26 p.m. EST on Friday, June 2 to include updated comments.

Military and civilian users of the the federal government’s Thrift Savings Plan, the popular tax-deferred retirement savings program for millions of government employees, filed a lawsuit alleging that they lost access to their funds following a modernization of its system.

Attorneys representing current and former service members and federal employees who filed the complaint on June 1 say their clients have experienced financial hardships due to complications that arose after Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board, which oversees the program, hired contractors to revamp the customer interface.

The TSP, which has some $800 billion in assets, announced a year ago that it was standing up a new online portal to improve cybersecurity and usability. The rollout was fraught with glitches and complaints from users who said they couldn’t access their funds, look up historical records or reach a customer service representative.

“In many instances, they were simply trying to withdraw their own money from the TSP,” and were unable to do so, said Joseph Sauder of Sauder Schelkopf, a class action and personal injury law firm based in Pennsylvania.

The complaint, which seeks class-action status, alleges that issues with the conversion causes TSP participants “to suffer actual injury, economic damages, and other injury and actual harm.” The suit, led by four legal firms based in different cities, claims that the TSP failed to process funds in a timely fashion in violation of the the Federal Employee Retirement Systems Act of 1986, which ultimately led to users falling behind on bills or having to take out loans while they were waiting.

“We have been contacted by hundreds of people and will know more as the case progresses,” said Sauder. When asked about next steps, he said defendants will likely file a motion to dismiss, and the court will rule. If the case moves forward, there will be discovery before any class certification motion is filed.

Hardship Withdrawals

The burgeoning suit also puts some of the onus on the Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board, an agency of five presidentially appointed members. The board had decided that it was going to enlist the help of contractors to manage TSP record-keeping. A contract was awarded in November 2020 to Accenture Federal Services and Alight Solutions — two of the named defendants in the complaint.

Before the award was made, the request for proposal aimed to ensure a “successful transition with a minimal blackout period while retaining the confidence and trust of participants and stakeholders,” per legal documents.

In the months following the release of the new system, users claimed they were running into problems with withdrawals, death benefits and loans. Ultimately, the complaint alleges that the TSP charges agreed-to fees to efficiently process loan and withdrawal requests, yet users feel that service hasn’t been provided, nor has TSP been transparent or communicable about its ability to do so.

One plaintiff claims that in the three months that it took to receive her hardship withdrawal, she had to take out a separate personal loan with interest.

Another TSP account holder and retired U.S. Army service member said that he requested an out-of-service withdrawal for $12,000. He did not receive it for six months, after which he alleges contacting the Thriftline more than 12 times and receiving a 1099 tax form for his withdrawal even though he had not yet received it.

TSP acknowledged via social media and messages that it was receiving very high call volumes to its help lines during the rollout. Lawmakers have also asked questions of the program’s oversight. According to the Government Accountability Office, which is looking to complete an audit of the program early next year, users continue to report issues.

“[Accenture Federal Services] and Alight completely botched the migration of TSP’s services due to an array of technological and staffing shortfalls that have virtually brought the services offered by TSP to participants to a screeching halt,” the complaint alleges.

The ThriftLine is operated by Accenture, which acknowledged Federal Times’ request for comment but did not immediately respond.

MacKenzie Lucas, a spokesperson for Alight Solutions, did not provide further comment on the complaint, per policy regarding litigation.

“I can share that we have a strong track record for delivering with excellence for our clients and their employees,” she said.

Kim Weaver, a spokesperson for the board, did not provide comment on the filing of the complaint, citing an inability to remark on any potential on-going litigation.

Marilyn Nieves
<![CDATA[Credit union ready with military paycheck assistance if U.S. defaults ]]>https://www.armytimes.com/pay-benefits/mil-money/2023/05/26/credit-union-ready-with-military-paycheck-assistance-if-us-defaults/https://www.armytimes.com/pay-benefits/mil-money/2023/05/26/credit-union-ready-with-military-paycheck-assistance-if-us-defaults/Fri, 26 May 2023 19:01:16 +0000In preparation for a possible U.S. debt default, Navy Federal Credit Union has announced it will offer a paycheck assistance program to help service members and certain other credit union members if their Defense Department-issued pay is disrupted.

There is a lot of uncertainty about the effects of such an unprecedented event; military pay could be delayed or stopped altogether. The Treasury Department is expected to reach the current debt limit sometime in early June unless lawmakers and the White House reach an agreement to raise the ceiling.

The paycheck assistance program will provide advances on members’ pay, which will be treated as a 0%-interest loan. The loan amount will be based on the most recent direct deposit to the account. The amount will not necessarily be equal to what the service member receives in net pay. There may be other options available for assistance.

Those eligible are all active duty, Guard and reserve military members, and DoD civilian employees and contractors whose pay is issued directly by DoD.

Military retirees are not eligible for this program.

To be eligible for the paycheck assistance program, members must have a paycheck direct deposit set up with Navy Federal and they must register for the program through navyfederal.org, the Navy Federal mobile app, or by calling 888-842-6328. Registration for the program will be accepted until three business days after the scheduled payday. For more information about requirements, visit Navy Federal’s information page.

“Given the potential for financial uncertainty related to the debt ceiling, we want to provide our members with peace of mind,” said Pete Amstutz, senior vice president of savings and membership at Navy Federal, in a statement.

Navy Federal has more than 12 million members worldwide, and is open to all service branches, including Coast Guard, veterans, civilians and contractor personnel and their families.

As with some other military-affiliated banks and credit unions, Navy Federal has offered similar programs during government shutdowns in 2011, 2013, and in 2018-2019. The credit union provided loans to nearly 20,000 members, totaling more than $50 million.

Those who may be affected by the debt crisis should check with their bank or credit union to see if similar programs will be offered.

<![CDATA[Another career logistician takes the helm of the commissary agency]]>https://www.armytimes.com/pay-benefits/mil-money/2023/05/24/another-career-logistician-takes-the-helm-of-the-commissary-agency/https://www.armytimes.com/pay-benefits/mil-money/2023/05/24/another-career-logistician-takes-the-helm-of-the-commissary-agency/Wed, 24 May 2023 22:17:53 +0000John E. Hall, a career logistician, has been chosen to head up the Defense Commissary Agency.

Defense officials selected Hall as the new director and CEO of the commissary agency, effective June 4. Hall now serves as Army assistant deputy chief of staff, G4, the Army’s leading civilian authority on logistics, managing a budget of over $10 billion annually, according to Hall’s Army biography.

Hall’s predecessor, Bill Moore, served in the same capacity before he became the commissary agency’s director in August 2020. Moore retired March 31, winding up 40 years of government civilian service.

“As a career logistician, I appreciate the commissary benefit’s impact on the quality of life of our service members and their families,” Hall said in a statement accompanying the announcement of his selection. “Commissaries help sustain our military communities by providing food security through significant savings, healthy food options, clean and safe stores, convenience and premier customer service.”

The commissary agency operates 236 military grocery stores in 45 states and 13 countries, with annual sales of over $4.4 billion.

Hall also played a key role in the delivery of COVID-19 vaccines. He was detailed from June through December, 2021, as the director of the defense element of the Health and Human Services/Department of Defense COVID-19 Countermeasures Acceleration Group, coordinating the delivery of over 200 million vaccines and therapeutics to the American public and more than 140 other nations.

“I’m pleased to hear that they have filled the position,” said Caitlin Hamon, deputy director of government relations for the National Military Family Association. “We hope the new director continues with the policy of ensuring families achieve at least 25% cost savings on their grocery bill. The importance of keeping prices low cannot be overstated when some service members and their families are struggling to put food on the table.”

John E. Hall has been selected to lead the Defense Commissary Agency. He now serves as the Army's assistant deputy chief of staff (G4), responsible for logistics plans, policy and programs. (Army)

She said the association is still hearing from those stationed outside the continental United States about shortages of essential grocery items and supply chain issues. “We’re urging DeCA to work with Congress to determine what support is needed to address problems with overseas delivery of commissary goods and services.”

Here's how DoD is helping commissary shoppers save more money

Hall’s logistics background “well suits him for the challenges” as commissary director, said Steve Rossetti, president of the American Logistics Association. “As the pandemic proved, food security has two sides to it. One is making sure that products are affordable for military folks. The other is making sure the logistical pipeline remains intact during emergencies.”

ALA is a nonprofit organization representing manufacturers and others that sell or provide products and services to the military resale systems and morale, welfare and recreation organizations.

“Hall takes the helm at a very critical time, as the secretary of defense and Congress have recognized the importance of the commissary for food security … with funding directed at reducing prices for military personnel at the commissary,” Rossetti said.

In September, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin directed DoD to “fully fund our commissaries to cut prices at the register, with the goal of achieving at least a 25 percent savings on grocery bills compared to the local marketplace.” It was part of his initiative to ease the economic pain faced by military families in a time of increasing inflation and to improve their financial stability.

Commissaries no longer have to make a profit to help pay for operating costs. The fiscal 2023 and 2024 budgets each provided about $1.4 billion to operate commissaries.

Customers pay a 5% surcharge at the cash register that’s used for facilities construction and upkeep.

<![CDATA[Military exchange online shoppers can now buy Home Depot appliances ]]>https://www.armytimes.com/pay-benefits/mil-money/2023/05/19/military-exchange-online-shoppers-can-now-buy-home-depot-appliances/https://www.armytimes.com/pay-benefits/mil-money/2023/05/19/military-exchange-online-shoppers-can-now-buy-home-depot-appliances/Fri, 19 May 2023 16:45:48 +0000Looking for a new dryer, refrigerator or other major appliance? Eligible military exchange shoppers in the continental United States; Oahu, Hawaii; and Puerto Rico now have the option of buying these products through a partnership with The Home Depot.

The items can be purchased via the online exchange store or at exchanges on five Army and Air Force bases. Home Depot will schedule delivery and installation of the appliances, which include washers and dryers, refrigerators, freezers, dishwashers, countertop or built-in microwaves, ranges, cooktops, ovens and hoods. The home improvement chain will also provide customer service for all deliveries and installations.

The exchanges have sold major appliances, but the primary motivation for this partnership is to provide better service to customers, especially in delivery, officials have said. Stores that don’t have Home Depot appliances on hand will still sell them and offer delivery. By June, sales associates will have a mobile checkout system to help customers browse The Home Depot inventory and buy an appliance.

“In addition to providing a significantly expanded selection of major appliances, exchange orders will be fulfilled using The Home Depot’s existing capabilities to provide efficient and dependable delivery,” said Tom Shull, director and CEO of the Army & Air Force Exchange Service.

Those five exchanges with Home Depot major appliance showrooms are Fort Moore, Georgia; Fort Cavazos, Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph and Dyess Air Force Base, Texas; and Fort Sill, Oklahoma. By October, another 60 Home Depot appliance showrooms will be added to exchanges across the continental United States.

Authorized shoppers across all military branches can also shop for these appliances at shopmyexchange.com, including: including all active, reserve and retired military members and their dependents; Department of Defense civilians and retirees; and honorably discharged veterans who have confirmed their eligibility to shop at ShopMyExchange.com.

The Home Depot officials anticipate rolling out the program with the Navy Exchange and Marine Corps Exchange stores later this year.

The purchases are tax-free and the prices will be 1% lower than the price available at Home Depot stores and its website, said spokeswoman Stephanie Meyering.

In general, Home Depot offers a 10% discount to military members, veterans and their spouses who register through their website using Sheer ID. But that 10% discount doesn’t apply to appliances, whether in Home Depot stores or online, said Meyering. That’s also stated on their website. That 10% discount will also not apply to appliances bought through the exchanges.

As always, you should still do some comparison shopping before you buy.

<![CDATA[‘Devastating’ debt default threatens troop pay, defense programs]]>https://www.armytimes.com/congress/budget/2023/05/16/devastating-debt-default-threatens-troop-pay-defense-programs/https://www.armytimes.com/congress/budget/2023/05/16/devastating-debt-default-threatens-troop-pay-defense-programs/Tue, 16 May 2023 15:44:49 +0000WASHINGTON — No one knows for sure exactly what a U.S. debt default will mean for military operations and veterans support programs. But there is widespread agreement that it won’t be good.

Military paychecks could be delayed or stopped altogether. Veterans benefits checks would similarly be delivered erratically. Equipment purchases could be canceled. Contractors and civilian workers could face the choice of furloughs or working without any guarantee of stable pay.

“Unlike the government shutdowns of the past, there is no scripted playbook for how this all goes,” said Rachel Snyderman, senior associate director of economic policy for the Bipartisan Policy Center. “We have never been in such a scenario before. But we know whatever happens, it could quickly become very chaotic.”

On Tuesday, President Joe Biden was scheduled to meet with senior congressional officials in the latest attempt to broker a deal raising the country’s debt ceiling. The Treasury is expected to reach the current limit sometime around June 1 absent congressional action to raise it.

Without a solution, the country could for the first time in history default on its debts, creating a cascade of financial problems across the economy.

Defense Department leaders have already warned those financial complications would have severe consequences for the military and other federal agencies.

At a Senate hearing on May 2, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said a spike in U.S. interest rates would have an “absolutely devastating impact” because of skyrocketing interest rates, which he noted are “already roughly at the level of the defense budget.” Just a few days later, at a separate Senate event, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin warned that defaulting on the U.S. debt would result in “a substantial risk to our reputation” with allies and security partners across the globe amid questions “as to whether or not we will be able to execute programs.”

But a debt default will also have tangible effects on troops, veterans and their families, even if the timing of that impact is not clear.

“Because there is no precedent for a default, it is difficult to know the precise impacts on specific federal programs,” Veterans Affairs press secretary Terrence Hayes said in a statement.

“But what is clear is that, without the ability for the federal government to borrow funds, there is a very real potential that any government program or payment would be halted or severely delayed.

According to the Bipartisan Policy Center, the Defense Department has about $12 billion in payments to military and civilian retirees due on June 1.

Roughly $7 billion is owed to defense vendors between June 5 and June 17. Another $4 billion in military salary checks are set to be sent out on June 15. Snyderman said if the debt limit is not raised, that schedule of payouts gets thrown into disarray.

“The Treasury could prioritize some payments over others, but they also may just have to wait for other money to come in,” she said. “Now this becomes a cash flow crisis for the country.”

Austin in his Senate testimony warned that “we won’t, in some cases, be able to pay our troops with any degree of predictability.” That means money families need for rent, groceries and other basic expenses could be delayed.

Similarly, about $25 billion in veterans benefits set to be paid out in June could be delayed by days or weeks, causing problems for millions of families that depend on that support for their monthly income.

If Treasury officials prioritize those payments, veterans and service members might not see any disruptions. But that would mean delays to other government payouts instead, things like Medicare support, non-defense federal salaries and interest payments on the national debt (failing to pay that would downgrade the country’s credit rating, creating even more debt).

Todd Harrison, the managing director of the national security consulting firm Metrea Strategic Insights, noted that payment delays would also affect defense contractors.

“They could continue to do work and [the Defense Department] could continue to award contracts and obligate money, but the payment of invoices would be delayed,” said Harrison. “The administration could elect to stop all new contract awards and obligations during this period, but that would make the impact even worse,” while possibly violating the law.

“If they were to halt all new contract obligations, that would have a significant and immediate impact on [Defense Department] programs and activities,” he added.

The damage only gets worse if the crisis drags on well into the summer. Another $14 billion in defense vendor payouts are due before July 15, when another $3 billion in military paychecks and bonuses are scheduled to be paid out.

Failing to pay contractors could result in a host of lawsuits and long-term delays to procurement programs. Hayes said officials worry that vendors could “decide to reduce or completely cease providing goods and services to VA if payment was uncertain.”

Failing to pay troops — and requiring them to keep working anyway — could become a political nightmare for both parties.

Lawmakers in the past have passed legislation to blunt the impact of government shutdowns on military and veterans families, ensuring that some Department of Veterans Affairs appropriations are awarded a year in advance and ensuring that military members receive pay even during an appropriations lapse.

Those protections don’t exist if the money to cut checks isn’t there for the country.

Harrison noted that the Treasury could “continue borrowing and paying bills as usual” if Biden opts to invoke a clause in the 14th amendment. But doing so would likely mean court challenges and other complications, Biden said in a press conference earlier this month.

In March, Virginia Democratic Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine introduced legislation that would have enabled all government employees and contractors to postpone paying any bills during a shutdown or debt default. The proposal has not moved forward in recent weeks.

Defense leaders said the real legislative solution is simply passing a measure to increase the debt limit, as lawmakers have done 13 times since 2009.

Earlier this month, after another meeting with congressional leaders, Biden said that he was “absolutely certain” a deal could be reached and that default “is not an option.” But in the days since, no real path ahead on the issue has emerged.

Win McNamee
<![CDATA[How successful are military spouses in getting federal contracts?]]>https://www.armytimes.com/pay-benefits/mil-money/2023/05/12/how-successful-are-military-spouses-in-getting-federal-contracts/https://www.armytimes.com/pay-benefits/mil-money/2023/05/12/how-successful-are-military-spouses-in-getting-federal-contracts/Fri, 12 May 2023 20:45:14 +0000A group of 15 lawmakers have asked federal officials to start tracking military spouse-owned businesses in their contracting database.

More military spouses are becoming entrepreneurs to contribute to the family’s income and fulfill their personal goals. The lawmakers want the ability to track how many of these spouse-owned businesses bid for and win federal contracts.

“This change would ensure that military spouse entrepreneurs are adequately represented and accounted for,” said Rep. Marilyn Strickland, D-Wash., in announcing a letter sent to the Office of Management and Budget May 10, on the eve of Military Spouse Appreciation Day. She is leading the effort.

While military spouse-owned small businesses can compete for federal contracting opportunities, there is no way to know whether they are doing so or being awarded contracts. The government doesn’t track military spouse participation.

As a result, there is no way for Congress to gauge trends in military spouse participation levels or address any deficiencies that might exist, the lawmakers stated. The information could also be used to help address the unemployment gap for military spouses, which has stubbornly remained at 20% for years, they said.

The lawmakers, all but one Democrats, have asked OMB to change policy to allow military spouse-owned businesses to self-identify in the Federal Procurement Data System, which is overseen by the Office of Federal Procurement at OMB. That data system includes entities registered to do business with the government. It recognizes many different self-identifiers, such as minority- and veteran- and woman-owned businesses, with codes assigned to each category. Congress, the administration, the Government Accountability Office and others use the information to identify trends and inform policy decisions.

Agencies can search what businesses and other organizations exist in the system and use the data to solicit Requests for Information from companies that might be interested in doing business with the agency, generally or on a specific type of opportunity.

The change, if adopted by OMB, would mean establishing criteria and eligibility for the military spouse-owned business category.

The change wouldn’t give spouses priority unless they qualified under another category such as veteran-owned. But agencies looking for a small business to handle a contract could express interest in those owned by a military spouse.

Talysa Lloyd McCall
<![CDATA[Advocates decry ‘chilling effect’ of housing companies’ subpoenas]]>https://www.armytimes.com/pay-benefits/2023/05/12/advocates-decry-chilling-effect-of-housing-companies-subpoenas/https://www.armytimes.com/pay-benefits/2023/05/12/advocates-decry-chilling-effect-of-housing-companies-subpoenas/Fri, 12 May 2023 20:16:42 +0000Several grassroot organizations that advocate for service members with housing problems have received far-reaching subpoenas of their records, and they’re worried it could have a chilling effect, discouraging military families from asking for help.

The housing advocates say two privatized housing companies that have been sued by military families — Balfour Beatty Communities and The Michaels Organization — are trying to force them to turn over most if not all communications regarding their housing issues, whether or not they are involved in the lawsuits.

“The subpoenas appear designed to harass [housing advocates], to drain their resources and to distract from their core mission of protecting military families from abusive landlords,” the nonprofit Armed Forces Housing Advocates stated in an April news release.

Dozens of military families are suing various privatized housing companies around the country over allegations of mold, cockroaches, sewer backups and other problems. Those include several lawsuits against Balfour and Michaels. But none of the advocacy groups are parties to the suits.

Over the past several weeks, as part of the discovery process, lawyers for the two companies issued subpoenas to National Military Housing Advocates, Armed Forces Housing Advocates and independent advocate Sarah Kline, who was previously affiliated with Armed Forces Housing Advocates.

Such subpoenas are unusual for nonprofits that aren’t part of a lawsuit, unless it’s a very large case, said John Hughes, an attorney representing some of the military families suing Fort Belvoir Residential Communities and Michaels Management Services.

Representatives of Balfour and Michaels say the subpoenas are more narrowly tailored than the advocates claim.

“The subpoena does not seek confidential information about any residents not involved in the lawsuit, and the accusations to the contrary are false,” Michaels officials said in a statement provided to Military Times.

Balfour Beatty Communities owns and operates family housing on 55 Army, Navy and Air Force installations. The subpoenas issued to Armed Forces Housing Advocates and to Kline relate to lawsuits filed by families at Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma; and Lackland Air Force Base, Fort Bliss and Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas.

The company argues that during the discovery process, “plaintiffs testified that [Armed Forces Housing Advocates] has relevant information related to their claims.”

“As is customary in litigation, a subpoena was issued requiring AFHA to share that information,” Balfour Beatty officials said in a statement to Military Times. “AFHA’s lawyer has not objected to the scope of the subpoena or said that a response would be unduly burdensome.”

The Michaels Organization, which owns and operates 11 military privatized housing communities, is the parent company of Fort Belvoir Residential Communities and Michaels Management Services, which are named in the Fort Belvoir lawsuit.

During the discovery process, “several plaintiffs testified under oath that a group called the ‘National Military Housing Advocates’ has information relevant to the lawsuit and to their personal claims,” Michaels officials said.

“Separately, the NMHA has filed at least one [Freedom of Information Act] request with the Army seeking documents relating to the lawsuit at Belvoir. Both of the individuals who filed that FOIA request on behalf of NMHA are plaintiffs in the case.”

“So, it is apparent that the plaintiffs, not the defendants, have involved NMHA in the lawsuit” Michaels officials said.

But the advocates insist company lawyers are asking for communications not just with families who are suing them, but any military families who have communicated with them about the companies.

The subpoenas include nearly identical descriptions of what the companies are seeking, with a list of nearly 100 items, including calendars, lists of people attending meetings, all forms of notes, medical records or reports, test readings, photographs, email, reports of telephone conversations and many more items.

Raven Roman, executive director of National Military Housing Advocates, formerly known as Belvoir Housing Advocacy Group, worries that general descriptions such as “any communications related to claims of mold or excessive moisture” would apply to any military family raising questions about housing at any installation, including those not owned by the two companies.

While Roman is personally involved in suing Fort Belvoir Residential Communities LLC and Michaels Management Services, the nonprofit advocacy group is not, she said.

“AFHA does not engage in any type of lawsuit or refer people to attorneys, and we try to work with the process that’s in place with the Military Housing Privatization Initiative because we want to avoid this exact problem,” said Kate Needham-Cano, executive director of Armed Forces Housing Advocates

“However, asking for the breadth of information regarding an entire company across the entire United States has nothing to do with those particular lawsuits, and that’s where it feels compromising … and that’s where it feels abusive to us as an organization,” Needham-Cano said. “We will use every resource available to us to lawfully participate and protect the families to the best of our ability.”

Families have a right to know “the housing company is trying to pursue information that they don’t have a right to,” Roman said. “Our main priority is to let families know what our stance is, and to let them know that we intend to oppose providing any information that might put them at risk, their communication with us.”

Both of the nonprofits are run by volunteers with limited resources. Armed Forces Housing Advocates was served with five subpoenas, Needham-Cano said, forcing them to choose between curtailing their services and grants to families for things like mold tests, food grants, window guards and reasonable accommodations, or paying for a lawyer to protect the families’ information. Luckily, they’ve had a small amount of money to be able to hire an attorney.

Roman said National Military Housing Advocates has been able to seek pro bono legal advice.

The issue could also have even broader effects, said Kelly Hruska, government relations director for the National Military Family Association. “I’m afraid the effects will be chilling on housing advocacy for military families and that it might spill over into other issues,” she said.

<![CDATA[2023 or bust: Now’s the time to revise your Survivor Benefit Plan]]>https://www.armytimes.com/opinion/commentary/2023/05/12/2023-or-bust-nows-the-time-to-revise-your-survivor-benefit-plan/https://www.armytimes.com/opinion/commentary/2023/05/12/2023-or-bust-nows-the-time-to-revise-your-survivor-benefit-plan/Fri, 12 May 2023 20:00:00 +0000Military retirees have a once-in-a-generation chance to revise their Survivor Benefit Plan decision and better meet the needs of their family. Congress has authorized an “SBP Open Season” during 2023, which is an important opportunity that many of our nation’s two million military retirees should consider.

Military retirees normally receive a generous pension, but the problem for their survivors is that retired pay ends when the retiree dies. At the time of retirement, retirees can enroll in SBP and pay 6.5% of their retired pay, so that when they die, their surviving spouse would receive an SBP annuity equal to 55% of the retiree’s pay. Based on the latest Department of Defense statistics, 68% of military retirees with families have opted into SBP.

Challenges and Opportunities

The challenge of SBP is that if the spouse dies first, the total amount paid in is forfeited, which is one reason almost one-third of those eligible for SBP have declined it. Another reason that some veterans declined SBP is because of the “widow’s tax.” If a veteran dies of a service-connected illness, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) will pay their spouse Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC), which is a tax-free benefit usually equal to $1,563 per month.

Previously, there was an SBP-DIC offset, known as the “widow’s tax,” in which a spouse’s SBP annuity was reduced by the amount of the DIC payment. Congress phased out the widow’s tax over the past three years, making SBP more valuable. Because of this, the 2023 SBP Open Season provides a unique opportunity for military retirees to revisit their SBP decision, which would otherwise be irrevocable.

If retirees would now like to enroll, they can “buy in” to SBP. To do so, they must pay all previous payments that they have missed since they retired, plus interest, and start paying the 6.5% premium from their retired pay going forward, until they have paid in for a full 30 years. At the retiree’s request, the Defense Finance and Accounting Service (DFAS) will calculate the cost of enrolling in SBP, and the retiree can then decide whether to enroll. If they do enroll, they must pay the back premiums either in a lump sum or in installments over 12 months – plus installment interest. Unlike regular SBP premiums that do reduce taxable retired pay, the payment of back premiums does not reduce the retiree’s taxable income.

The back payments required to “buy in” can be significant, but so can the benefits for the retiree’s family. For example, a Lieutenant Colonel who retired over 30 years ago has retired pay of approximately $6,200 per month, which will end when he dies because he did not enroll in SBP. He requested his buy-in letter from DFAS, which specified that to make up for the premiums that he would have been paying every month for the past 30 years plus interest, he would need to pay $180,000. That is a huge sum, but by buying in to SBP, his widow will receive about $3,400 each month. If his widow outlives him by just 52 months, she will have received more than the $180,000 buy-in cost. The amount of the widow’s annuity should keep pace with inflation because retired pay and the corresponding SBP annuity will increase with annual COLA increases, with no additional contributions from the retiree.

Military retirees who enrolled in SBP at retirement have a one-time chance during open season to permanently discontinue SPB premiums. If they discontinue SBP, they will not receive any refund of funds already paid into SBP and their family will not receive any annuity when they die. In most cases, they will have to get the concurrence of their spouse or other beneficiaries to disenroll.

Approaching Enrollment

Obviously, enrolling or disenrolling from SBP is a significant financial decision that retirees and their families need to make carefully. The cost of the “buy in” enrollment may not be as high as the $180,000 example, especially if someone retired more recently. Anyone who has had financial, health or family circumstances that have changed since they retired should carefully examine this unique opportunity. To take the first step toward considering enrollment, military retirees should go to the special DFAS page where they can complete a letter of intent to enroll. DFAS will then reply with exactly what the “buy in” to SBP would cost. Retirees should consult with qualified financial professionals who understand military benefits and can carefully consider what is in their family’s best interests in the context of a comprehensive financial plan.

Michael Meese is a retired Army Brigadier General and is President of the American Armed Forces Mutual Aid Association (AAFMAA).

Have an opinion?

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<![CDATA[Could troops get a 100% housing allowance Jan. 1? What that would mean]]>https://www.armytimes.com/pay-benefits/mil-money/2023/05/10/could-troops-get-a-100-housing-allowance-jan-1-what-that-would-mean/https://www.armytimes.com/pay-benefits/mil-money/2023/05/10/could-troops-get-a-100-housing-allowance-jan-1-what-that-would-mean/Wed, 10 May 2023 21:32:45 +0000Troops with families could get $100 to $184 more money each month, on average, if the Defense Department were to boost Basic Allowance for Housing levels from 95% to the full 100% of their housing costs — eliminating the cost share that troops now shoulder.

A recent DoD analysis, mandated by Congress, shows that if Pentagon leaders did decide to restore the full BAH level, as many lawmakers want, troops without dependents would get from $82 extra to $164 extra per month, on average.

In 2015, defense officials reduced the amount of housing allowances they pay to military families from the full cost to 95% of their rental costs, as determined by the Basic Allowance for Housing formula. The cost-saving measure was authorized by Congress, but it wasn’t required.

But due to economic conditions, concerns have grown about the affordability and availability of housing for military families. The rapidly rising cost of housing even persuaded defense officials to implement a temporary BAH increase at the beginning of fiscal years 2022 and 2023 to help service members find affordable, quality housing.

As a result, lawmakers have been urging defense officials to again have BAH cover 100% of troops’ housing costs, which DoD can do without legislation.

Congress also required DoD to analyze how much money the 5% boost would put in the pockets of average service members, based on rank and dependent status, as well as what it would cost the department. It won’t come cheap. Paying the full cost of housing would add up to $1.1 billion in DoD outlays in 2024 if the full BAH were restored in January. That’s in addition to the $26.8 billion in BAH currently paid to about 1 million service members.

DoD’s analysis, obtained by Military Times, shows, for example, that an E-5 with dependents would see an extra $111 a month, on average; an O-2 with dependents, would get an average of $118 more.

Department analysts also looked at the costs of gradually implementing a boost in the allowance, but their report doesn’t include recommendations about whether the department or Congress should act.

The current 5% out-of-pocket housing cost “reduces the buying power of service member families, especially in high cost areas of the United States,” lawmakers stated in their 2022 report requiring the DoD analysis.

Family advocates share their concern.

“Military families, like all Americans, have felt the financial pressure from the pandemic, inflation and a volatile housing market,” said Shannon Razsadin, president and executive director of the Military Family Advisory Network. “But military families don’t have the option to hunker down and ride it out. They move due to military orders, on average, every 2.5 years. From our extensive work on housing and food insecurity, we see a clear intersection between paying for housing and purchasing healthy food.

“At a time when nearly one-quarter of military families are experiencing food insecurity, an extra $100 per month could make all the difference,” she said. “We are encouraged by the options DoD presented and are hopeful Congress will lay the path for a full restoration of the housing allowance.”

Here's what that reduction in basic allowance for housing is costing troops

The DoD analysis also looked at what it would cost to restore the full BAH benefit over five years. The full implementation in 2024 would cost DoD an extra $1.1 billion in that year. Over the five years through 2028, it would add an estimated $7.5 billion (which includes inflation in housing costs).

If DoD increases the BAH gradually — by one percentage point each year for five years — service members would get less money at the start — ranging from $19 a month to $31 a month, on average. But it would cost DoD less: an extra $214 million in 2024 and an extra $4.4 billion over the five years.

The following chart from the report shows average BAH increases if DoD decides to restore the full BAH benefit.

Source: DoD report to Congress

While the monthly BAH increase would apply to all eligible for the allowance, troops living in privatized housing wouldn’t see it because their full BAH generally goes directly to their housing landlord. The rent for privatized housing is set at the BAH rate.

Generally, about two-thirds of service members live in the civilian community. Service members may choose to rent or buy a dwelling in the civilian community that costs less than the monthly BAH and can pocket the extra money. If they choose to rent or buy a dwelling that costs more than BAH, the extra expense comes out of pocket.

The allowance is designed to offset the costs of local median rents and average utilities. BAH rates are adjusted each January based on surveys and information collected about rent and utilities for different types of houses in more than 300 military housing areas in the United States, including Alaska and Hawaii.

In 2023, BAH rates rose an average 12.1%, the largest year-over-year percentage jump in the allowance in at least 15 years.

The Government Accountability Office has reported that DoD needs to improve the way it calculates troops’ housing allowances and defense officials are in the process of reviewing those procedures.

Daniel Malta
<![CDATA[New Tricare dental rates take effect]]>https://www.armytimes.com/pay-benefits/mil-money/2023/05/04/new-tricare-dental-rates-take-effect/https://www.armytimes.com/pay-benefits/mil-money/2023/05/04/new-tricare-dental-rates-take-effect/Thu, 04 May 2023 20:34:05 +0000New monthly premium costs for coverage under the Tricare Dental Program have increased by a few dollars, according to Tricare officials.

The increases are generally in line with previous years’ increases and go into effect May 1.

This is a voluntary dental benefit for eligible active duty family members and National Guard and reserve members and their families. Active duty service members, including activated reserve component members, get most of their dental care from military dental clinics.

For active duty members with one family member enrolled the single premium is $12.36, up from $11.94 the previous year. The single enrollment premium is for the family member, not the active duty sponsor. The active duty family premium is now $32.13, up from the previous $31.04. This applies when more than one family member is enrolled.

The Tricare Dental Program is a pay-ahead program; each payment is for the next month of coverage. This voluntary Tricare dental coverage is separate from Tricare medical coverage and requires separate enrollment. The Tricare Dental Plan is administered by United Concordia Companies Inc.

Other rates:

Selected Reserve and Individual Ready Reserve (under mobilization orders)

  • Sponsor only: $12.36, up from $11.94
  • Single premium: $30.89, up from $29.84
  • Family premium: $80.33, up from $77.59
  • Sponsor and family premium: $92.69, up from $89.53

Individual Ready Reserve (not under mobilization orders)

  • Sponsor only premium: $30.89, up from $29.84
  • Single premium: $30.89, up from $29.84
  • Family premium: $80.33, up from $77.59
  • Sponsor and family premium: $111.22, up from $107.43

In addition to the monthly premiums, there may also be cost-shares for dental services. There are no cost-shares for diagnostic or preventive services.

There are also plan maximums, the most that Tricare will pay for certain dental services:

  • Annual benefit maximum: $1,500 per enrollee
  • Orthodontic lifetime maximum: $1,750 per enrollee
  • Dental accident coverage annual maximum: $1,200 per enrollee
<![CDATA[Proposal would expand free credit monitoring to military families]]>https://www.armytimes.com/pay-benefits/mil-money/2023/04/28/proposal-would-expand-free-credit-monitoring-to-military-families/https://www.armytimes.com/pay-benefits/mil-money/2023/04/28/proposal-would-expand-free-credit-monitoring-to-military-families/Fri, 28 Apr 2023 18:22:08 +0000A new legislative proposal would provide free credit monitoring for all uniformed service members and their family members, building on a five-year-old law that provided the free benefit to active duty members.

The monitoring, which generally costs around $30 a month or more, can help troops and family members keep on top of their finances, with information about new activity on their credit reports. With early detection, troops can take steps to nip fraud and other problems in the bud. The three credit reporting agencies are currently providing the service to all active duty members.

The bipartisan proposal, introduced Thursday by Sen. Tom Carper, D-Delaware; Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota; Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-North Dakota; and Sen. Steve Daines, R-Montana, would amend the Fair Credit Reporting Act to expand the definition of those eligible for free credit monitoring to include all in the uniformed services, regardless of duty status, to include members of the National Guard and reserve components. It also would expand the free credit monitoring to their spouses and dependents over 18.

“We owe it to our service members and their families to make sure that their financial well-being is protected while they are protecting our country at home and abroad,” said Carper, a 23-year veteran of the Navy and the Navy Reserve, in an announcement about the proposal. “Military families are often more vulnerable to cybersecurity breaches, which can expose personal data like sensitive financial and identification information.”

Ensuring that military families have full access to credit monitoring services will help keep their information secure, said Cramer, in the announcement.

Credit files maintained by the credit reporting agencies include information about where you live, whether you pay your bills on time and the amount of debt your are carrying; whether you’ve been sued or arrested; or filed for bankruptcy. The information is used to make decisions on whether to lend you money, rent you an apartment, and, importantly for many in the military, whether you should be given a security clearance.

The legislation is endorsed by TransUnion, one of the three major credit reporting agencies, and by The Military Coalition, according to the announcement.

“The current law … provides a safety net for most but not for all of our uniformed services as we would intend,” said Jack Du Teil, president of The Military Coalition, in a statement provided in the senators’ announcement. “The key to oversight is to expand the current law to include all service members — a course of action TMC has long supported.

“We appreciate that this legislation also expands credit monitoring coverage to spouses and dependents of uniformed service members,” he said.

A proposal was introduced in the House in March to expand the free credit monitoring to all uniformed service members, but it didn’t include family members.

Wilfredo Lee
<![CDATA[Expansion of commissary doorstep delivery program on hold, for now]]>https://www.armytimes.com/pay-benefits/mil-money/2023/04/21/expansion-of-commissary-doorstep-delivery-program-on-hold-for-now/https://www.armytimes.com/pay-benefits/mil-money/2023/04/21/expansion-of-commissary-doorstep-delivery-program-on-hold-for-now/Fri, 21 Apr 2023 20:08:07 +0000Plans for expanding the commissary doorstep delivery program to every stateside commissary are on hold as officials try to find a way make the program financially viable while keeping customers’ cost as low as possible.

The pilot program continues at eight commissaries in the continental U.S., at least through June, but the delivery fee has more than quadrupled. The new delivery fees, implemented March 1, now depend on the distance of the customer from the commissary and range from $15.99 for a delivery within one to five miles up to $29.99 for a 16- to 20-mile trip.

Previously, it was about $4 per delivery, which was the only cost to customers beyond the actual cost of groceries and the 5% surcharge. Customers also have the option of tipping the delivery driver when they check out online.

The commissary website notes that the pricing is determined by the delivery service provider, not by the Defense Commissary Agency.

With a $4 delivery fee — which was the only money the contractors received — the program wasn’t sustainable, said numerous sources.

The federal minimum wage for federal contract workers is $16.20 per hour. Add on the current mileage rate of 65.5 cents per mile, plus fringe benefits and other costs, and “it’s very difficult to make it work,” said Todd Waldemar, founder and CEO of ChowCall, the contractor providing the delivery service at all eight commissaries in the pilot program, in explaining the delivery fee increase.

Losses of $40 to $70 per delivery were cited in the questions asked by potential bidders in the contract solicitation for the expansion of the deliveries at all stateside commissaries.

“Expansion will be delayed until further notice as DeCA performs additional market research” to find an approach that’s sustainable and cost-effective for commissary customers, said commissary agency spokesman Kevin Robinson.

That means they’re trying to find a way to make the program viable for contractors, while keeping the cost for commissary customers as low as possible.

“DeCA has been working hard to make this work,” said Waldemar. “My interpretation is that they’re trying to find that sweet spot of how to make it viable for a contractor while staying true to their mission of improving quality of life for service members, families and other authorized commissary customers.

“It’s close to being viable,” he said.

Caitlin Hamon, deputy director of government relations for the National Military Family Association, said the program is still needed.

“This is a service that families want, that they requested during the pandemic,” she said. “We think it’s important those families who need the delivery have it still as an option and still have access to the low-cost grocery benefit of the commissary.

“We were told by families, and earlier by DeCA, that the delivery services were becoming more popular,” she said. “We would encourage them to explore other avenues of funding for the delivery. Obviously the federal government has restrictions, but there’s something to be said for looking at the civilian counterpart grocery setup.”

Here's how DoD is helping commissary shoppers save more money

Waldemar noted that pricing in the delivery service industry is challenging, not just for the commissary agency but across the entire industry. The increases in delivery fees have affected the number of people using the service, he said, without providing specifics.

“But it’s still a great program, and it’s still going well,” he said.

“We, as a contractor, want to be profitable, but we also want to minimize the fees,” Waldemar said. “Volume is important. The more volume, the better for us.”

The doorstep delivery program is an expansion of the Commissary Click2Go program, where customers at stores worldwide can order online and pick up their groceries curbside at their commissary.

But this test has taken the groceries a step farther — to the customer’s front door. Commissary employees pick the items from the shelves to fill the customer’s online order, then bring them to the delivery driver curbside.

The eight pilot locations have seen an influx of 17,503 new Click2Go customers since the delivery program started, said Robinson, the commissary spokesman. The store with the largest sales volume is Fort Belvoir, Virginia, with 5,013 orders totaling $643,169 from May 18, 2022, through March 31, 2023.

In addition to Fort Belvoir, the doorstep delivery pilot program is available at seven other locations: Scott Air Force Base, Illinois; Fort Bragg South, North Carolina; MacDill Air Force Base, Florida; Naval Station Norfolk, Virginia; Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington; and Marine Corps Air Station Miramar and Naval Station San Diego in California.

Rivet, another delivery services company that was part of the pilot program until February, was also successfully providing services, with military spouse employees.

“We were asked by the commissary to continue service without government funding and we shared, based on industry norms and pilot data, it is impossible to have a nationwide program without funding it, especially when federal regulation restricts revenue and adds costs,” said Harold Earls, co-founder of Rivet.

“Rivet was forced to pause services, letting go 41 military spouses” in late February, he said. But he’s optimistic that DeCA is working on a viable solution “and has a strong commitment to creating jobs for military spouses that transfer with them when they PCS,” he said.

Waldemar said 60% of ChowCall’s employees are military affiliated, including spouses and veterans.

When Rivet left the pilot program, ChowCall took over delivery services at all eight commissaries.

Limited options for the commissary agency

There are constraints DeCA has that other grocers who provide commercial delivery services don’t have. The agency, which relies on taxpayer dollars to pay for operations, to the tune of about $1.4 billion a year, is a benefit, not a business. Others in the delivery service industry have ways to earn revenue besides the customer fees they charge, according to questions and answers in the now-canceled solicitation. That includes marking up prices to pay for deliveries.

“The commissary cannot mark up pricing for groceries to cover or subsidize the cost of delivery,” commissary officials stated in the solicitation Q&A. “DeCA has statutory pricing and savings requirements that commercial grocery outlets do not have.”

DeCA officials have consistently said that all costs will be covered by customers using the delivery service. The agency won’t subsidize the program.

One questioner estimated a net loss of nearly $40 on each delivery, using the commissary at Fort Lewis, Washington, as an example. The estimate was based on a delivery fee of $11.99, which is the top of the range of the industry average.

Delivery from that commissary often takes drivers 45 minutes; plus there’s a 21-minute average wait time at the commissary for commissary employees to bring out the groceries. The local required wage rate noted for drivers is $20.90 per hour, along with the 65.5 cents per mile reimbursement.

Waldemar said the doorstep delivery is important to expand access to the commissary benefit. It’s especially important, he said, for spouses who may need to get their groceries delivered, for various reasons, when the service member is deployed.

ChowCall also partners with other businesses, expanding options for deliveries.

“Ultimately we want the military community to have better options than everybody else,” he said. “We want to tangibly make people’s lives better.”