- Written by Karen Jowers Karen Jowers
Starting Jan. 1, all service-connected disabled veterans, Purple Heart recipients, former prisoners of war, and primary veteran caregivers will be eligible to shop at commissaries and exchanges, and officials from three federal agencies are preparing the way.
The newly eligible customers will also be able to use certain morale, welfare, and recreation activities.
It’s the largest patronage expansion in more than 60 years, said Virginia Penrod, principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for manpower and reserve affairs, who spoke at a meeting of the American Logistics Association earlier this year.
The departments of Defense, Veterans Affairs, and Homeland Security have been planning for the expansion for more than six months, with four teams totaling about 70 people.
The fiscal 2019 National Defense Authorization Act expanded the pool of eligible shoppers. Because the expansion also applies to Coast Guard facilities, the Department of Homeland Security has been involved.
The law also included Medal of Honor recipients, but they already had shopping privileges. Previously, veterans with 100% service-connected disabilities were able to shop; now, all with service-connected disabilities can shop.
The benefit extends to Morale, Welfare, and Recreation programs that are “revenue-generating facilities,” according to the law.
The expansion is about a 50% increase in customers. Currently, about 6 million total households are eligible for the benefit; this adds 3 million, said Justin Hall, director of the Department of Defense office of MWR and Resale Policy.
“That’s a huge lift across the entire system,” he said.
The impact assessments generally show there will be a low-to-moderate impact on military stores overall, said Penrod.
But she called on representatives of industry for their help to make sure the supply chain “remains responsive to the increased sales volume to ensure no out-of-stock situations occur” at stores in states with high populations of disabled veterans and in states with higher cost of living.
These new shoppers generally don’t have access to military bases. Officials have decided the best form of identification for these groups:
Disabled and other eligible veterans: For access into the installation, and for access to the stores, they’ll use the veterans health ID card, Patrick said.
Officials have enabled technology at the front gate to scan those veteran cards, and commissary officials have adjusted their technology to enable systems to read the veterans health ID card.
Caregivers: The process will be different, initially, Patrick said, since caregivers are not directly affiliated with DoD or VA other than through their annual appointment to be a caregiver.
The benefit applies to the primary caregiver of wounded/injured veterans who are registered in the Department of Veterans Affairs caregiver program.
The VA will post a memo to VA.gov for caregivers, to be used for access at the front gate, along with a driver’s license or other authorized form of ID. The VA process will later transition to a caregiver-type ID card, which will have scanning-swipe capability, he said.
Currently there are about 30,000 VA caregivers who will qualify for this benefit, but over the next several years the number could potentially grow to about 250,000, Patrick noted.
Credit Card Fee
These new customers will pay a fee for using a credit card at commissaries, except for the military resale system’s Military Star card. The amount of the fee has not yet been determined.
By law, this expansion can’t include extra costs associated with using credit cards in commissaries; the cost must be passed on to the customer. Except for the Military Star card, credit card companies charge transaction fees to retailers when customers use their credit cards.
The fee applies only to new patrons using credit cards in commissaries, not to Medal of Honor recipients or others who were previously authorized to shop.
New customers can avoid the fee by paying by cash or check or by using the Military Star card. The fee only applies at the commissary, which is funded primarily by taxpayer dollars.
Reprinted with permission from MilitaryTimes (www.militarytimes.com).