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

Pay Satisfaction Improves, VA Tweaks Pension Benefits for Veterans

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Although the recently released results of the Office of Personnel Management’s annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey suggested that federal workers still are not satisfied with how raises and promotions are doled out across government, they appear to be growing more satisfied with their own salaries.

The percentage of respondents who reported that they are satisfied with their pay increased by 2 points this year, reaching 63 percent in 2018. The increase in satisfaction continues a trend dating back to 2012, when satisfaction with pay was only 54 percent. That nadir came in the midst of a three-year pay freeze between 2011 and 2013.

In 2018, federal workers received a 1.9 percent pay raise, although President Trump has proposed that the government freeze employees’ pay next year. Some agencies have begun to prepare to implement that proposal, but it is becoming increasingly likely that Congress will overrule the plan and provide civilian employees with a 1.9 percent raise next year. Republicans negotiating a fiscal 2019 spending package said they will agree to a raise.

After next week’s midterm elections, lawmakers will have until Dec. 7 to approve a bill to fund a variety of agencies for the rest of the fiscal year. Congress already has passed two minibus spending bills covering the departments of Defense, Labor, Education, Health and Human Services and other agencies.

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Meanwhile, the Veterans Affairs Department announced Tuesday that it will introduce new limits on who is eligible for needs-based defined benefit programs.

Regulations governing the VA pension and Parents’ Dependency and Indemnity Compensation programs were updated Oct. 18 to reflect the new policy. The programs provide monthly payments to retirement-age wartime veterans and their survivors with an annual income of less than $13,855, although that limit can be mitigated by unreimbursed medical expenses.

Under the new rules, there will be a “clear net-worth limit” for income and assets, and the rules establish a 36-month “look-back” period that allows the department to review asset transfers to ensure they were not done at below fair market value to reduce an applicant’s net worth. The new regulations establish “up to a five-year penalty period” based on the portion of covered assets that would have made an applicant’s net worth exceed the threshold.

The change also updates definitions of a medical expense to be consistent with “VA internal guidelines.”

In a statement, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said the changes will ensure the program serves people who need it and will defend it against potential fraud.

“The amended regulations bring consistency to the pension process and ensure benefits are available for veterans and survivors with financial need,” Wilkie said. “They will help maintain the integrity of and provide clarity to our needs-based pension program.”

Outside of the financial requirements, veterans and survivors seeking to apply for the program must have at least 90 days of active duty service, with at least one of those days being during a wartime period. Veterans who entered active duty in 1980 or later generally must have served at least 24 months. Veterans also must be at least 65 years old, disabled, a nursing home patient, or receive Social Security Disability or Supplemental Security Income.

Erich Wagner is a staff correspondent covering pay, benefits and other federal workforce issues. He joined Government Executive in the spring of 2017 after extensive experience writing about state and local issues in Maryland and Virginia, most recently as editor-in-chief of the Alexandria Times. He holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Maryland.

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