*Legislative Update 25 March 2016: Will You Pay More at the Commissary?

We have no Action Items today

Summary of Issues
At Issue 1. we see WILL YOU PAY MORE AT THE COMMISSARY? Commissary to use new metrics in pilot program. Variable pricing means your grocery bill could change. (See Issue 1 below for the details. GF)

At Issue 2. we see HOUSE LEADER HUDDLES WITH VA HEALTH COMMISSION. Commission has only a few weeks to report on health care improvements. The chair of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee offered his views on the future of VA health care. ( See Issue 2 below for the details. GF)

At Issue 3. we see. YOUR MOAA LETTERS MATTER. Congress pays attention. MOAA thanks you for mailing in your tear-out letters. (See Issue 3 below for the details. GF)

Collectively We Can and Are Making a Difference

FOR ALL, Please feel free to pass these Weekly Legislative Updates on to your group of Veteran Friends –
don’t be concerned with possible duplications – if your friends are as concerned as we are with Veteran issues, they probably won’t mind getting this from two or more friendly sources


March 25, 2016

The commissary continues to be a favorite benefit for servicemembers, retirees, wounded warriors, and survivors. Yet, every year, we find the program coming under budget scrutiny.

The money required to keep commissaries operating is small in terms of the overall defense budget, but the desire to use that money elsewhere (approximately $1.4 billion annually) is high.

Last year, Congress wrote a requirement into the defense bill for the Secretary of Defense to submit a report to achieve budget-neutrality for the commissary and exchange benefits no later than March 1, 2016. Then, the Department was tasked to begin pilot projects to achieve that goal – while also maintaining current levels of patron savings and satisfaction and product quality.

Recently, Defense Chief Management Officer, Peter Levine, acknowledged budget neutrality couldn’t be achieved while still meeting those criteria. But the requirement to proceed with the report remains.

March 1, 2016 has passed, and the report release has been delayed, but is expected later this year. After the report is submitted, DoD will be allowed to begin pilot programs using concepts such as variable pricing.

Commissaries currently are not allowed to sell items for less than cost or more than cost. The variable pricing pilot would allow them to selectively modify product prices, up or down, for up to five years (or more if it works to reduce requirements for tax dollar support).

Although the pilot still requires DoD to meet benchmarks for savings, product quality, and customer satisfaction, variable pricing could change the way commissaries deliver those savings.

Civilian stores use variable pricing to create “loss leaders” – basic products that may be priced at a loss to the store, but attract patrons to buy other products with higher profit margins.

Variable pricing could also lead to varying commissary prices by location. For example, in areas where costs outside the gate are higher, commissaries could adjust pricing upward, so long as the patron experiences the equivalent level of savings compared to local groceries. Accordingly, if the local groceries are typically priced lower than the national average, the commissary would have to adjust their prices downward, potentially at a loss, to provide savings.

Therefore, some assignments may result in higher or lower out of pocket cost to the patron to put the same food on the table.

MOAA hopes these pilots are successful in finding efficiencies without deteriorating the benefit.

The commissary isn’t just a store inside the gates of a military installation. It’s one of the key mechanisms through which the Defense Department delivers a military benefits package intended to sustain long-term retention and readiness.


March 25, 2016

Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), Chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, met with the Commission on Care on Mar. 21 to discuss what the VA health system should look like over the next few decades.

The chairman and other congressional leaders championed legislation – the Veterans’ Access, Choice, and Accountability Act of 2014, or Choice Act – establishing an independent Commission to make recommendations for needed health system reforms. Those recommendations are to be reported in June.

When a commissioner voiced concern about the possibility of the report falling through the cracks, Miller assured them, “This report will not sit on the shelf.”

Though the VA budget has increased nearly 86 percent since 2009, the chairman voiced concern over ongoing problems, seeing little improvement despite the unprecedented investment of money.

Problems ranging from poorly managed construction projects to misconduct by VA employees are ongoing.

Miller told commissioners the VA budget can’t keep getting bigger, saying, “The VA’s current fiscal path is not sustainable.”

He offered commissioners some suggestions on how to frame a new, more sustainable, veterans’ health system for the future, addressing system accountability, infrastructure and property management, and “putting veterans in the driver’s seat.”

Miller questioned whether health coverage for a service-connected or combat-disabled veteran should be the same as a non-combat, non-service connected disabled veteran who served for a shorter period of time, and may have other health insurance.

Regardless, Miller insisted the Veteran Health Administration of the future needs to be veteran-centric, empowering veterans to make their own health care choices.

He also talked about the need for more community care so veterans have options, as envisioned in the Choice Program. It’s not practical to have a medical facility near every veteran, and bringing new facilities on-line is an extended, expensive process, he noted. He asked the commission to seriously consider whether VA should continue to operate its own hospitals, because VA facilities are aging.

As Miller approaches retirement from Congress at the end of the year, he hopes the next chairman continues to exert the necessary oversight to reduce the bureaucracy between the Secretary and those in the field.

“I want to see VA transform into a model of accountability…bold changes will happen if veteran service organizations get behind Congress on these changes,” he said

March 25, 2016

Every year, MOAA provides tear-out letters in the Military Officer magazine to encourage members to mail physical letters to their elected officials. Members have asked whether these tear-out letters really make a difference, or if they even get through to the Hill in a timely way.

MOAA recently visited the House Armed Services Committee offices to check on the arrival of the tear-out letters we included with the February Military Officer Magazine. By early March, the Committee had received thousands of MOAA members’ letters.


Tear out Letters

The Committee staff has told us many times these letters do make a difference. A couple of years ago, MOAA addressed the tear-out letters to Budget Committee leaders instead, only to have the Armed Services Committee staff suggest we go back to sending letters to Armed Services, as they help leadership understand beneficiary interests.

MOAA uses the February or March magazines to carry the tear-out letters and post cards because it can take about four weeks for them to start arriving on the Hill.

In that regard, the Armed Services Committees usually start preparing the Defense Authorization Bill around the end of April or early May. The publication of the letters is timed to have them arrive on the Hill before then, so they can be taken into consideration.

MOAA thanks you for mailing in your tear-out letters. You are making a difference.

That’s it for today- Thanks for your help over the years!