Special Reports

Civilian furloughs to hit hard; also different areas losing ‘Prime’ offices

Most of 800,000 Department of Defense civilian employees will see their workweeks shortened and their pay cut by 20 percent from late April through September, if Congress, as now expected, fails to stop $46 billion in indiscriminate defense budget cuts set to take effect March 1.

With lawmakers on a nine-day Presidents Day recess, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta officially notified Congress Feb. 20 of the department’s intent to furlough the “vast majority” of its civilian workers. This, he said, will be necessary if Republicans and Democrats continue to refuse to negotiate a “balanced” debt-reduction deal to defuse or delay the “sequestration” budget bomb built into the 2011 Budget Control Act.

The furloughs would capture about $5 billion of needed savings but would hit overall readiness along with other plans to cut stateside base operations, reduce military training except for next-to-deploy units, delay maintenance of ships, aircraft, vehicles and facilities, suspend many scheduled ship deployments and make deep cuts in aircraft flying hours.

Panetta’s letter starts a 45-day clock required by law to begin the massive furlough. It gives the services and defense agencies time to recommend individuals or categories of employees for exemption from the furlough, which can mean a total of 22 days’ unpaid leave through Sept. 30

Civilians working in combat zones will be exempt, as will employees needed to maintain safety of life and property at defense facilities. Exemptions are expected for some civilians working intelligence too.

Also to be exempt will be 50,000 foreign nationals who work on U.S. bases overseas under status of forces agreements with host countries. Exempt by law are all non-appropriated fund employees who work in base exchanges or who run military morale, welfare and reaction activities.

Most commissary employees would not be exempt, however, because their wages are paid with tax dollars. So base grocery store hours and some other family support program could be cut if sequestration occurs.

By mid-March, employees not exempt will get individual notices of likely furlough, to start in 30 days. They will have one week to appeal that decision to the federal Merit Systems Protection Board. So the first Defense civilians won’t see their work hours cut until late April.

“The effects of sequestration and the continuing (budget) resolution on our military personnel will be devastating. But on our civilians, it will be catastrophic,” warned Jessica Lynn Wright, acting under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness.

“These critical members of our workforce,” added Wright, maintain and repair tanks, aircraft and ships, teach in military schools, operate day care centers and are 40 percent of staff in base hospital and clinics.

“They take care of our wounded warriors. They provide services and programs such as sexual assault prevention and suicide prevention, just to name a few,” she said.

A 20-percent pay cut for five months “won’t only be felt by each employee,” Wright added, but also by nearby communities.

At the same Pentagon press conference Wednesday, Robert F. Hale, the department’s chief financial officer, urged Congress to pass a “balanced” deficit reduction package to “de-trigger sequestration” and also to pass a fiscal 2013 defense appropriation bill to replace a continuing budget resolution which has frozen defense spending below fiscal 2012 levels.

Tricare Prime Rollback: Tricare Management Activity has a new online tool for retirees under age 65 and surviving spouses to verify if their Prime network will end Oct. 1, forcing them to use Tricare Standard.

With the new fiscal year, managed care networks operating beyond 40 miles of military treatment facilities or base closure sites will be halted under next-generation Tricare support contracts. The change, to impact 171,000 beneficiaries, is intended to cut Tricare costs for taxpayers.

At the website tricare.mil/psazip, Tricare users can type in their zip code and learn whether their Prime service area will exist after Sept. 30. They also can find contact information for contractors and can sign up for email alerts on additional changes planned to Prime service areas. Of the three Tricare regions in the United States, the South will be most heavily affected by rollback of managed care networks. The contractor there, Humana, now offers Prime everywhere across Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky (Fort Campbell area only), Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas (excluding the El Paso area). Effective Oct. 1, Humana’s networks will shrink to those within 40 miles of a military treatment facility or of a base-closing site.

In the North Region, military managed care for under-65 retirees and survivors will end in these areas: Springfield, Mass. (into Connecticut); Kankakee, Ill.; Gary, Ind.; Auburn, Mich.; St. Louis, Mo.; Charlotte, Greenville, Raleigh/Durham, Wilmington and Winston-Salem-Greensboro, N.C; Akron and Cincinnati, Ohio; Pittsburgh, Pa. and Milwaukee, Wis.

In the West Region, Prime networks will end in: Des Moines, Iowa; Minneapolis, Miss., Springfield, Mo.; Eugene, Medford, Portland and Salem, Ore.; Yakima and the Outer Islands of Hawaii.