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

Pay Raise Action, Higher Ed Discounts, TRICARE Flexibility and More

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Lawmakers continue to tussle over federal pay. Last Thursday, the Senate rejected an amendment to the 2017 defense authorization bill that would have given service members a 2.1 percent pay raise. The measure had been pushed by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. As Federal News Radio noted, McCain bluntly told his colleagues: “If you vote no, don’t go home and say you support the military, because you do not.”

Alas, the amendment received only 56 of the 60 votes needed for passage.

Also last week, the House Appropriations Committee approved the 2017 Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Act, paving the way for the largest federal pay raise in six years. As Eric Katz noted in a story last month: “Congressional Republicans do not appear to have any appetite to stand in the way of President Obama giving federal employees a 1.6 percent pay raise in 2017.”

While military pay didn’t receive the boost some lawmakers sought, Senators did move to protect commissary benefits for service members and their families. Senate lawmakers, by a vote of 70 to 28, approved an amendment throwing out a pilot plan contained in the 2017 defense authorization act that would have privatized grocery stores on five major military installations.

Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., introduced the amendment, S.Amdt.4202, with 37 cosponsors: “At a time when thousands of junior servicemembers and their families use food stamps, we should not be making changes that could increase costs at the checkout line,” he said.

Inhofe said he wanted more time to review a new Pentagon report on commissaries, which was conducted at the request of Congress. The findings of that report were best summarized in the headline of a Military Times story: “Pentagon: No way to operate commissaries without taxpayer funds.”  

Federal law enforcement officers could carry their government-issued firearms in the event of another government shutdown under legislation passed by the Senate last week. The Federal Law Enforcement Self-Defense and Protection Act (H.R. 2137) was pushed by the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association after confusion arose about such authority during the last government shutdown in 2013.

“This issue has never been about shutdowns or firearms, but about the absolute necessity of ensuring the safety of our members and their families,” FLEOA National President Nathan Catura said.  

Thinking about going back to school? The Office of Personnel Management signed an agreement with Penn State World Campus to give 1.8 million federal workers, their spouses and dependents a 5 percent tuition reduction in the school’s online offerings. There are no program exclusions or out-of-state rates, OPM said:  

The benefit takes effect immediately and is available to all Federal employees, their spouses and legal dependents. Students in undergraduate programs offered through Penn State World Campus pay the equivalent in-state tuition rate of Pennsylvania residents who attend one of the University’s campuses. Tuition rates for graduate programs vary.

Penn State World Campus offers more than 125 undergraduate and graduate degrees and certificates across a broad spectrum of topics critical to federal operations, including cybersecurity, acquisition, human resources, auditing and STEM fields.

“The agreement we have with the Penn State World Campus benefits us all,” said Beth F. Cobert, OPM’s acting director, noting it could help agencies close critical skills gaps.

Federal employees who have completed college courses at other institutions can have their transcripts evaluated to see how many credits will transfer. “In addition, Penn State World Campus offers academic advising, a dedicated advising team for military students, disability counselors, tutoring and career counseling. World Campus also offers a free, optional online course called Transitions that introduces students to online learning while increasing computer, study and research skills,” OPM said.

U.S. News and World Report ranked Penn State World Campus No. 1 for the best online bachelor’s degrees in 2015 and 2016, and several of Penn State’s graduate programs were also ranked in the top 10. For more information, visit the Penn State World Campus website.

And finally, Reps. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, and Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, introduced legislation this week that would allow TRICARE-eligible military veterans to opt out of the military health insurance program in order to contribute to employer-sponsored Health Savings Accounts. The Veterans TRICARE Choice Act (H.R. 5458) would amend the Internal Revenue Code and Title 10 to allow military retirees and other TRICARE-eligible veterans the ability to freeze and unfreeze their participation in TRICARE, permitting them to become eligible for HSA contributions and the associated tax advantages. Veterans could opt back into the TRICARE program during the open enrollment season under the Federal Employees Health Benefits program.

As the lawmakers explained in a discussion paper:

Not only are veterans excluded from making HSA contributions themselves, but so are their current, private employers even if the employer makes contributions to the HSAs of other employees. These HSA contributions are disallowed by law solely because these individuals are covered by TRICARE. Presently, there is no means for these individuals to opt out of TRICARE and become eligible for HSA contributions.

The House Ways and Means Committee has a description of the proposed law here.

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