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

Military Families Worry About Possible Commissary Closures

U.S. Navy petty officer Mary Crowe shops at the commissary at Naval Station San Diego. U.S. Navy petty officer Mary Crowe shops at the commissary at Naval Station San Diego. Denis Poroy/AP File Photo

Salary, health insurance and retirement benefits most often spring to mind when federal employees think of compensation. But for military personnel and their families, another perk is just as important: the heavily-subsidized commissaries on base where they buy food and other goods. The Pentagon is proposing a 71 percent reduction in subsidies to the stores in its fiscal 2015 budget, and according to a new survey, most middle-class career military families are worried such a drastic cut would really hurt.

Two-thirds of military families in pay grades E-6 and above with household incomes of at least $50,000 per year “identify commissaries as an important part of their current compensation as well as future retirement benefits,” said the latest survey from the First Command Financial Behaviors Index released this week. Three out of four survey respondents said eliminating the taxpayer-subsidized benefit “would negatively impact their families,” the report said.

“Commissaries are an important benefit for not only lower-income, junior members of the military, but also our higher-ranking men and women in uniform who earn solidly middle-class incomes,” said Scott Spiker, CEO of First Command Financial Services Inc. “Our survey respondents estimate that they spend almost half of their monthly grocery shopping dollars at commissaries.”

Sixty-five percent of respondents said the cost of food would increase and 60 percent said a larger portion of their monthly household budget would go to groceries if the proposal becomes reality.

In addition, respondents said concern over higher grocery prices at commissaries would mean less opportunity to save money to prepare for sequestration. Although the automatic, across-the-board budget cuts have been partially repealed, they are still in effect governmentwide for the next several years.

The Pentagon, however, is under pressure to rein in its escalating personnel costs, which now make up about one-third of the department’s budget. There are 178 U.S. commissaries; the proposed budget would reduce funding from $1.4 billion to $400 million over three years, forcing many commissaries to close. Congress no doubt will be reluctant to approve such a significant cut given the politics and the fact that lawmakers from both parties continue to reject any major reform to the military’s pension or health care systems.

No More TRICARE Walk-ins

On April 1, walk-in appointments in the United States at TRICARE service centers officially ended. If you need help understanding your benefits, or need to make a change in your coverage, pick up the phone or go online, TRICARE officials said.

The plan -- which will close walk-in services at 189 centers -- will save the department $250 million over the next five years, according to Pentagon spokesman Col. Steve Warren. It will not affect any medical benefit or health care service.

All TRICARE service centers located overseas still will offer walk-in appointments. 

In other TRICARE news, TRICARE and Military OneSource will host a webinar on April 10 from 1-2 p.m. EST to educate beneficiaries about health insurance. To sign up, go to “Registration is on a first-come, first-served basis and is limited due to system capacity. Participants must avoid sharing personal health information when asking a question,” according to information on TRICARE’s website.

Public Housing and Pay

The Housing and Urban Development Department is catching some heat from one Republican senator over delays in posting online updated and comprehensive compensation data of public housing authorities’ top officials. Charles Grassley of Iowa said he intends to place a hold on the nomination of Katherine M. O’Regan as HUD’s assistant secretary for policy development and research because of the department’s failure to release the salary data.

“I will object to Ms. O’Regan’s nomination because I haven’t yet received a response to my February 14, 2014, letter to HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan regarding HUD’s effort to collect public housing authority salary and compensation data for calendar year 2013,” Grassley said Tuesday. “Specifically, I asked when the data would be available to the general public on the HUD website and whether it would be available in a searchable, standard electronic format.” 

In 2013, HUD published a notice in the Federal Register asking public housing authoritiess for more comprehensive data on how they pay their executive directors, including a breakdown of base salary, bonus and incentive compensation, and which payments are made with federal funds. More than 3,000 PHAs nationwide manage public housing programs.

After reports surfaced in 2011 of excessive compensation at some PHAs nationwide, Congress imposed a $155,500 salary cap for fiscal 2012 on the amount of federal funds that can be used to pay PHA executives. HUD decided to extend that cap and close a legislative loophole so that total cash compensation, not just base salary, falls under it. The department collected 2010 salary data in August 2011 from public housing authorities across the country, and collected 2012 data. HUD did not gather 2011 salary information because the cap didn’t take effect until 2012. Currently, publicly available data on HUD’s website does not list the compensation for executives at individual public housing authorities, but rather aggregate data.

“Despite HUD’s pledge, the full set of data has never been posted on the department website,” Grassley said. “Instead, it only posted three pages of aggregate data in June 2012, and HUD didn’t provide the full set of data to my office until May 2013, nearly two years after the data collection process was initiated.”

HUD did not immediately respond to questions for comment.

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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