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

Lawmakers Urge Reversal of Defense Per Diem Cuts, Senate Debates Budget Resolution and More

A bipartisan group of House lawmakers is urging congressional leaders to reverse a 2014 policy reducing the per diem rates for service members and civilian Defense employees who are on extended government travel.

Implemented by the Pentagon in 2014 in an effort to cut costs, the rule has long been a sore spot for Defense personnel and members of Congress. The policy reduced long-term temporary duty travel reimbursement rates by 25 percent for travel between 31 and 180 days, and by 45 percent for trips longer than 180 days. The rates include lodging, meals and incidentals, and vary by locality.

Led by Reps. Colleen Hanabusa, D-Hawaii, and Walter Jones, R-N.C., 13 lawmakers sent a letter the leadership of the Senate and House Armed Forces committees asking that they insert language into the fiscal 2018 National Defense Authorization Act to reverse the rule.

The lawmakers cited a May Government Accountability Office report that said the Defense Department “may not be well positioned to understand whether the flat rate per diem policy is cost-beneficial and meeting its objectives . . . without negatively affecting the traveler and the mission.”

The House version of the fiscal 2018 NDAA blocks the 2014 rule, and it requires...

A Small Dent in the Retirement Backlog, Tips for Feds to Prevent Opioid Abuse, and More

After months of struggling to cope with the number of federal employees filing retirement requests, the Office of Personnel Management made modest progress in reducing the backlog in September.

OPM reported last week that it had received 8,810 new retirement claims for the month, and it processed 9,107 requests. That marks the first month since June that the agency has processed more claims than it took in.

Overall, the backlog of requests dropped from 17,125 at the end of August to 16,828 last month. But the percentage of claims processed within 60 days dropped on a monthly basis from 70 percent in August to 65 percent last month.

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In August, OPM officials confirmed that President Trump’s hiring freeze at the beginning of 2017 hampered their ability to process retirement claims on a timely basis. But they said the agency’s retirement services office “mitigated the impact of staff shortages” with a number of process improvements.

Although the retirement backlog is often a sore topic for congressional watchdogs, OPM said retiring feds do not see the impact of a long waiting...

More Help for Feds Affected by Hurricanes and More Flexibility for Those Who Want to Volunteer

The Office of Personnel Management has continued its work to help federal employees affected by the string of severe storms to hit the United States and to offer avenues for workers to contribute to the various recovery efforts.

Officials announced last week that they have granted a grace period for charities located in areas impacted by hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria to allow them additional time to complete the requirements to participate in this year’s Combined Federal Campaign.

OPM said it is already in direct contact with the affected charities and will provide further guidance moving forward. The CFC officially launched Monday, but because of the storms, OPM said it will not launch the web portal for donations until later this month.

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“By giving charities a little more time, we helped maximize their opportunity to participate in the CFC to the fullest extent possible after this unprecedented series of catastrophic hurricanes,” said OPM acting Director Kathy McGettigan, in a statement. “They can continue to focus on what’s most important right now—caring for themselves and their communities—and still have the chance to...

Bonuses for Surpluses, Another Federal Pay Comparison, and More

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., introduced a bill last week that would award bonuses to federal employees that identify surplus funds in their agencies’ budgets.

The Bonuses for Cost-Cutters Act (S. 1830) would allow agency inspectors general to authorize bonuses in instances where workers identify unneeded or surplus funds. Paul said the bill is aimed at combatting spending binges at the end of the federal budget calendar, when he said agencies adopt a “use it or lose it” mentality.

“Reining in and controlling end-of-the-year spending binges should be a bipartisan priority,” Paul said at a hearing last week. “Hopefully our hearing today will renew interest on both sides of the aisle to address accelerated, wasteful spending at the end of the fiscal year.”

Under the bill, a maximum of 10 percent of identified savings could go to the federal employee responsible for identifying the surplus, while the remainder would go toward deficit reduction. Bonuses could not be awarded to employees at the top level of the Executive Schedule pay system, to agency heads or to voting members of independent boards.

But Heather Krause, director of strategic issues at the Government Accountability Office, testified that agencies’ back-loaded spending tendencies are in part...

VA Needs Better Relocation Incentive Tracking, Flu Season Approaches and More

A government watchdog said the Veteran Affairs Department should do more to track the effectiveness of a program that helps relocating employees sell their homes.

A Government Accountability Office report released Tuesday said VA has taken steps to tighten its internal controls over its use of the General Services Administration’s Appraised Value Offer program in response to a 2015 report from the agency’s inspector general. But the agency does not adequately track the program’s usage in order to better inform future decision-making on its deployment.

AVO is a program that federal agencies can use to recruit and relocate employees for mission critical positions where a GSA contractor will help find a purchaser for the employee’s home—or purchase it outright.

In 2014, Diana Rubens, senior executive director of the Veterans Benefits Administration's Philadelphia office, was accused of abusing her authority to secure a transfer from Washington, D.C., to her current position, along with nearly $310,000 in relocation costs, including more than $200,000 through AVO.

Rubens was demoted while she under investigation, but that decision was overturned by a judge in 2016.

Last year, VA made a number of improvements to its administration...