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Traveling Feds Have (a Little) More Money to Spend

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The government shutdown last month overshadowed lots of other news affecting federal employees, including the new per diem rates for government travelers, which took effect on Oct. 1.

Federal employees traveling on government business received a small boost for lodging in fiscal 2014. The standard lodging rate is now $83 per day, up from $77 per day in fiscal 2013. The standard rate for meals and incidentals remains $46 per day. That’s $129 per day for food and lodging for feds traveling on the standard rate in fiscal 2014.

The increase marks the first change in per diem rates since fiscal 2012. The General Services Administration, which establishes travel per diems, last year froze rates at fiscal 2012 levels.

GSA’s per diem is about 5 percent lower than the average daily rate of the market. While the standard lodging rate applies to about 2,600 counties, 400 additional “non-standard areas” receive individual calculations. Feds traveling in cities with high costs of living, such as New York City, receive inflated reimbursements.

Some of the non-standard areas, such as Washington, D.C., saw a slight decrease in their per diem rates, while others got a boost.

GSA also eliminated the Conference Lodging Allowance, which let federal travelers spend 25 percent more than per diem rates for conferences. The move will save the government $10 million in fiscal 2014, GSA said.

Click here to calculate fiscal 2014 per diem rates in the continental United States.

Backlog of Disability Claims Appeals by State

Texas, Florida and California have the most appeals pending from veterans who have filed service-connected disability claims, according to a new analysis from Allsup, a company that provides veterans disability appeals services.

The total appeals backlog currently stands at 253,011 -- a 79 percent increase since 2008 when the backlog stood at 141,715, Allsup found.

While the VA regional office in St. Petersburg, Fla., had the most appeals pending for a single office in 2013 -- 22,581 -- Texas had the most appeals in the queue by state, with 30,993 claims pending in its Houston and Waco offices.

Florida had 22,581 appeals pending to date, followed by California with 17,134; Georgia with 14,334; and North Carolina with 11,327.

Click here for the number of disability claim appeals pending by VA regional office. Currently there are more than 700,000 disability claims pending at the initial stage at Veterans Affairs, prior to reaching appeals. That is down from more than 900,000 pending claims this past spring when the department announced it would fast-track disability claims from vets who’ve waited a year or longer for benefits. After the department issues a final decision on a claim, vets have the right to appeal.

The government shutdown in October slowed the department’s momentum in tackling the massive backlog. “Despite these obstacles, the VA continues to work aggressively to reduce the claims backlog,” said Brett Buchanan, an Army veteran and VA-accredited claims agent at the Allsup Veterans Disability Appeal Service. “But it still means long waits for veterans who are appealing their decisions.”

Mandatory overtime for claims processors resumed after the government reopened on Oct. 17 and will continue at least through Nov. 16, said VA.

The average wait time for vets who appeal their disability claims -- from filing to disposition -- was 1,040 days in fiscal 2012, according to Allsup. Some vets can wait up to five years to see their claims resolved.

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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