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Key developments in the world of federal employee benefits: health, pay, and much more.

Pension Penalties

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Lawmakers are seeking to cut corruption among their own ranks by denying pension benefits to members of Congress convicted of more types of felonies.

Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., and Rep. Robert Dold, R-Ill., this week introduced bills that would add 20 new public corruption offenses to an existing law that cancels federal pensions for convicted lawmakers. The proposals also would revoke the pensions of former members of Congress who are convicted of committing these crimes while serving as elected officials.

Under current regulations, bribery, witness tampering, wire fraud and racketeering are among the offenses that would force lawmakers to give up their retirement benefits. The proposed legislation would add obstruction of justice, solicitation of political contributions, theft or bribery related to programs receiving federal funds, tax evasion, promising political appointments, and interfering with commerce using threats or violence, among others, to the list.

"A member of Congress convicted of defrauding the public doesn't deserve to retire on the public's dime," said Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., who co-sponsored the House version of the bill. "This bill makes sure that corruption comes with a lifetime of consequences."

According to Patricia Niehaus, national president of the Federal Managers Association, federal employees who are removed from their positions for cause such as disciplinary actions, prior to retirement, will forfeit annuity eligibility. This holds true whether or not they were convicted of a felony. They would, however, receive a refund of the money they contributed to their retirement fund.

Workers convicted of a felony may be able to retain their position and their pension, however. If the crime committed does not impact the employee's job function nor require jail time, retirement benefits will not be penalized, Niehaus said.

Benefits for VA Caregivers

The Veterans Affairs Department already has processed more than 1,000 applications for new benefits that would provide a monthly stipend for caregivers of severely disabled veterans, according to the American Forces Press Service, which is part of the Defense Department.

The benefits are targeted at primary family caregivers of eligible post-9/11 veterans, and in addition to the stipend, include mental health services, access to health care insurance if they are not already entitled to it under a health plan, travel costs, training, counseling and respite care. VA started processing applications on May 9, and is backdating stipends to the date of the application. Of the applications received so far, 92 percent have been from women, according to the AFPS report.

The benefits were included in the 2010 Caregivers and Veterans Omnibus Health Services Act and apply to people caring for veterans who have sustained serious injuries, including traumatic brain injury, as a result of being in the line of duty after Sept. 11, 2001. VA also will provide some expanded benefits to caregivers of vets from all eras who already are enrolled in VA care, including additional training, counseling and access to the department's toll-free caregiver support line (1-855-260-3274).

The department can process applications through the toll-free number, in person at VA medical centers, by mail or online at http://www.caregiver.va.gov.

Fido Rules

VA on Thursday will publish a 26-page proposed rule that broadens and clarifies current regulations related to providing service dogs to eligible veterans.

At this time, department regulations recognize only "guide dogs" and not "service dogs;" the proposed rule expands that definition. "This rule would provide the same benefit to all eligible veterans, so it is unnecessary to distinguish dogs by the services they provide," the draft rule stated.

Benefits, which include veterinary treatment for the animals, necessary equipment and repairs to that equipment, are available to vets diagnosed as having a visual, hearing, or substantial mobility impairment, such as a spinal cord injury, and in lieu of assistive technology. "We believe that providing VA with discretion to choose between a service dog or assistive technology based on medical judgment rather than cost-effectiveness would ensure that VA's patients receive the highest quality of care that the VA-system can provide," said the proposed regulation.

The department, however, will not pay for additional expenses such as license tags, nonprescription food, grooming, personal injury insurance, nonsedated dental cleanings, nail trimming, boarding, pet-sitting or dog-walking services, or over-the-counter medications.

VA estimates that approximately 600 veterans will need to provide certification for existing service dogs, and 100 vets annually will obtain the animals.

 

Kellie Lunney covers federal pay and benefits issues, the budget process and financial management. After starting her career in journalism at Government Executive in 2000, she returned in 2008 after four years at sister publication National Journal writing profiles of influential Washingtonians. In 2006, she received a fellowship at the Ohio State University through the Kiplinger Public Affairs in Journalism program, where she worked on a project that looked at rebuilding affordable housing in Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina. She has appeared on C-SPAN’s Washington Journal, NPR and Feature Story News, where she participated in a weekly radio roundtable on the 2008 presidential campaign. In the late 1990s, she worked at the Housing and Urban Development Department as a career employee. She is a graduate of Colgate University.

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