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

Autism Coverage, Diplomat Pay, Retirement Relief and More

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Would you rather have job security or an opportunity to make more money? Apparently most senior executives at the Veterans Affairs Department would take security over pay, when considering a department proposal to move some executives from Title 5 to Title 38 as a way to streamline the hiring and firing of senior personnel. That was the takeaway from a survey by the Senior Executives Association, which found deep skepticism that higher compensation would offset greater personal and professional risk.

Respondents also expressed “a deep fear of politicization of their jobs, the SES, the federal civil service, and the distribution of services and benefits to veterans,” SEA found.

Not surprisingly, given the tenor of recent Congressional hearings about VA management, “the survey revealed many career executives feel that neither VA nor Congressional leaders are approaching the challenges within the agency with the nuance and thoughtfulness necessary to find solutions that would help not only the agency and its employees, but the veterans the agency serves.”

In a move aimed at helping at least some veterans, the House Republican budget proposal for 2017 would allow disabled veterans to deposit their disability checks into the Thrift Savings Plan. Currently, when service members leave the military they no longer can contribute to their TSP retirement accounts unless they take a job with the federal government. As the GOP blueprint explains the proposed change:

Many non-retired veterans face obstacles that may delay—or prevent—financial success. According to a 2014 National Foundation for Credit Counseling survey, service members are more likely to rely or misuse credit cards than their civilian counterparts, leading to higher debt when they transition out of the military. The survey also found 77 percent of service members worry about a lack of savings to cover unexpected expenses, cover retirement, and being able to make debt payments on time. This option would allow non-retired veterans the opportunity to invest their disability compensation into a TSP account, providing these individuals an opportunity to plan for their future retirement. All veterans, not just retirees, should have access to the TSP benefit.

In other retirement benefit news, two House lawmakers have introduced legislation that would boost the retirement income of federal firefighters by changing the way benefits are computed. Firefighters are required to work regular tours of 72-hour work weeks, with 19 of those hours considered overtime for the purposes of pay calculation. But when retirement benefits are computed, those overtime hours are not accurately accounted for, the lawmakers contend. The Federal Firefighter Pay Equity Act, introduced by Reps. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., and Mike Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., would change the way regularly-scheduled overtime hours are computed, resulting in an increase in retirement benefits.

Pay equity is also an issue for diplomats and the State Department is again going to bat for Foreign Service Officers. In testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week, Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources Heather Higginbottom said that that securing locality pay at the Washington, D.C., rate for those serving overseas is a priority for the department.

“We must work hard to retain [top talent] in a competitive labor environment,” Higginbottom said. “Due to inequities in the Foreign Service pay schedule, Foreign Service officers deployed overseas have absorbed cuts to their basic pay compared to their domestic counterparts. In addition, our colleagues from other agencies with whom we serve overseas do not face this discrepancy.”

The American Foreign Service Association has long advocated for full overseas comparability pay, as proscribed in the 2009 Supplemental Appropriations Act. The legislation granted the State Department temporary authority to pay full OCP to Foreign Service members posted overseas, which it planned to do in three phases. The first two tranches went through, but the final tranche remains pending, AFSA said in a statement.

“The Foreign Service is the only federal government entity that is globally deployed with an enduring physical presence in almost every country in the world. Yet, when our members deploy abroad to embassies alongside their military and intelligence community colleagues, the only member of that trio to take an 8-percent cut in basic pay is the one from the Foreign Service,” said AFSA President Ambassador Barbara Stephenson. “In the interest of fairness, we would like to see that remedied by Congressional action to pass the third and final tranche.”

And finally, Reps. Chris Smith, R-N.J., and Mike Doyle, D-Pa., co-chairs of the Autism Caucus, are pressing the Pentagon to reverse course on planned TRICARE reductions for coverage of autism treatments. Thirty-eight of their colleagues have joined them in a letter to Defense Secretary Ash Carter, urging him to reverse the reductions in the reimbursement rates for applied behavior analysis treatment, scheduled for April 1.

“My colleagues and I are concerned that the new rates could result in a substantive reduction in access to crucial ABA services for the more than 26,000 military children with ASD,” Smith said in a statement. “We are particularly concerned about the effect the proposed reductions of as much as 15 percent annually in reimbursement rates for ABA services will have on communities where access is already limited. DOD’s own study to justify these proposed reimbursement reductions notes that there are locations near large, important military bases throughout the U.S. where there is no access to ABA services at all.”

The National Military Family Association has urged that the proposed ABA reimbursement rate reductions be postponed pending the completion of the ongoing Comprehensive Autism Care Demonstration in 2018. The group also recommended that TRICARE undertake a comprehensive analysis of ABA services and commercial insurance reimbursement rates to assure adequate autism insurance coverage for TRICARE beneficiaries.

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