After the sequestration hammer fell on March 1, Congress immediately began considering options for cushioning the blow to some federal programs. In signing the sequestration order, President Barack Obama, exercising the option available to him by the Budget Control Act, exempted all the military’s personnel accounts from mandatory reductions. As a result, all military pay and allowances will remain untouched and on time, and retirees and survivors will also continue to receive payments and annuities. Nevertheless, sequestration affects military families.
Direct pay and benefits are not the only line items in the defense budget that affect service members and their families – a fact pointed out by Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Jessica Wright, who warned of sequestration’s “second- and third-order effects to the total force and their families.”
Congress has already ordered a remedy to at least one of these effects, for the remainder of the fiscal year, but there’s still time for constituents to let legislators know, as they debate several sequestration-altering bills in the House and Senate, about some of the potential consequences of sequestration:
Tuition Assistance: Separate from the G.I. Bill benefit, military tuition assistance offers service members in all branches, including the National Guard and Reserves, up to 100 percent for tuition expenses for off-duty education programs, including a high school diploma, certificate program, or completion of a four-year degree.
After the sequestration order was signed, the military branches suspended tuition assistance programs. According to Karen Golden, Deputy Director for Military Family Issues at the Military Officers Association of America, the backlash in the military community was swift and loud: “People were very upset that this had happened,” she said. “They didn’t understand it. They felt it was a recruiting and retention tool – particularly the people who had already been in their schooling program – and I think it just showed families that this is what can happen: You can have a benefit today, and it can be gone tomorrow. It created a tremendous amount of anxiety, because people were concerned that if it could happen to tuition assistance, what happens to all these other programs that support families?”
Congress got the message: When it passed the continuing resolution funding the government for the remainder of the 2013 fiscal year, it ordered the service branches to restore tuition assistance payments. Like other budget line items, the tuition assistance program now can only be cut by about nine percent.
Medical and counseling treatment facilities: Though the total number of furlough days to defense civilian employees has been scaled back, the fact remains that most of the nearly 800,000 DoD civilians around the world (exemptions include civilians in war zones, foreign workers overseas, and political appointees) will be furloughed for 14 days – basically, taking an unpaid day off every week for three and a half months.
These cuts will affect every aspect of care and counseling for service members and their families. Wounded warrior programs, while ostensibly protected from cuts, are often staffed by civilians, who support the disability evaluation process and the delivery of care.
The military health care system is not exempt from sequestration, and is set to be cut by $3 billion. Civilian furloughs could further hinder the provision of care, services, or prescriptions. “Forty percent of the employees at clinics and military treatment facilities are federal employees,” said Golden, “and families are very concerned that there will be limited access to services and appointments as we move into the summer months, which is a high PCS [Permanent Change of Station] period. Our families are traveling and moving. We’re not sure what the impact will be if you have to furlough forty percent of your workforce.” If sequestration remains in force, it’s likely that the DoD will delay payments to civilian doctors who see TRICARE patients.
As Megan McCloskey reported in Stars and Stripes on March 12 (http://www.stripes.com/cuts-could-affect-army-s-mental-health-providers-limit-soldiers-access-to-care-1.211553), more than half the Army’s 4,500 mental health professionals are civilian – some of whom, under a new initiative, are embedded directly with brigades. The pending furloughs would not only devastate the ranks of providers in this new program; the lack of job security also threatens the recruitment and retention of qualified mental health care professionals.
Schools: One of the most insidious potential effects of sequestration on military families is already beginning to occur in children’s school districts. Civilian DoD employees subject to furlough include teachers, staff and administrators at 194 schools, both at home and overseas, who educate 84,000 military children within the Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA). “With school personnel,” said Golden, “the challenge is fitting in those fourteen days before the end of the school year, or maybe during the beginning of the next school year – because they can’t be furloughed during the summer, when they’re not there. So for DoDEA teachers the challenge is how to implement those cuts: Can they get in any of those furlough days before the end of the school year, or will those furlough days have to be taken at the beginning of the next school year? And how will they handle those furloughs? What will they do to make up for teachers who are not present? We’re still waiting to hear.”
It’s not only DoDEA schools that will be affected by sequestration – through a federal program known as Impact Aid, public school districts near military bases receive more than $1 billion in annual payments. Impact Aid, one of the oldest federal programs, is designed to help school districts that are burdened by federal activity – such as districts serving a large proportion of military children, whose families pay little or no local taxes, and often no state taxes. More than 1,000 school districts receive Impact Aid – a program that, like every other federal program, is slated for a 9 percent cut – and some are due to be hit hard.
Commissaries and Exchanges: Military exchanges generally don’t receive appropriated funding, so will not have to adjust hours because of sequestration – but commissaries will be closed an additional day per week (most are already closed on Monday). Golden, who is married to a Marine who was once stationed in South Korea, said this is a bigger deal than most people realize. Families who shop at commissaries on U.S. installations, she said, can adjust their routines to be able to utilize the benefit – but those overseas will have a more difficult time. “That’s two days out of that week you can’t access those goods and services,” she said. “There is limited access to those types of goods and services, at a slightly higher cost, at what we would call a shop, which is akin to a convenience store on the military installation. If you can’t shop on those two days, and you cannot go to the convenience store to get standard American products – infant formula, over-the-counter medications, meats, milk, American bread – you can’t find access to those things outside the gates. You probably could find a small jar of peanut butter if you needed it – but you’re going to be paying a lot of money for that peanut butter. So our families overseas, in particular, are definitely going to feel the impact of commissaries closing.”
These ripple effects are among the most obvious – the full impact of sequestration’s reductions on military families will only become known as the situation plays out. As the Pentagon and legislators continue to discuss how sequestration will look for the military, Golden offers this advice: “We’re trying to get both Congress and DoD to understand that as they administer these cuts, we don’t want it to be arbitrary – just whacking nine percent off of everything with no thought put into it. It’s very important for DoD to be given some authority in terms of how to leverage those cuts, because they should be able to look at where they can shift funds to mitigate impacts in certain programs.”