Support is growing among veterans service organizations to consolidate commissary and exchange stores on military bases.
Groups including the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States and Enlisted Association of the National Guard of the United States all expressed support for the recommendation -- if savings on groceries and other items can still be passed on to troops and their families.
“The VFW does not oppose the reform and, in fact, we support it so much as we can retain the overall value of commissary savings,” Brendon Gehrke, senior legislative associate for the organization, told lawmakers this month. “If we can do that, we’re all for finding efficiencies and merging the two.”
Scott Bousum, legislative director for the Enlisted Association of the National Guard of the United States, added, “For brevity’s sake, I agree.”
John Stovall, director of national security for the American Legion, made similar comments, saying, “If the efficiencies could be realized through consolidation without a net negative impact to military families, either in terms of payment or accessibility, it's not something that we would oppose.”
The proposal was one of 15 recommendations from the congressionally mandated Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission. In January, after nearly two years of review, the panel released a report detailing the proposals designed to give troops, retirees and their families more benefits options while saving the Defense Department $12 billion a year by 2040.
Several veterans groups offered differing views on the recommendations during a hearing this month of the House Armed Services Committee's Military Personnel Subcommittee, headed by Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nevada. Much of the debate centered on the proposed changes to the military's retirement and Tricare health care system for families, reservists and working-age retirees.
But the organizations also split on the commissary proposal, which Heck included among the commission’s three most significant recommendations.
As it stands now, the exchange is operated by a trio of private companies and supplies goods to rural and overseas locations. Meanwhile, the Defense Commissary Agency, or DeCA, sells groceries at cost, plus a 5 percent surcharge. Under the merger, the new agency would sell food and essential groceries items at cost and other items now carried by the exchanges at a profit.
“If combining these organizations achieves overall cost savings and efficiencies to the DoD, and the current level of savings are realized by current service members and retirees, then would you continue to oppose this reform, and if so, why?” Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colorado, asked the veterans service organizations.
Both the National Military Family Association and the Military Officers Association of America both expressed reservations about the proposal.
“We have some concerns about the consolidation; specifically it seems to eliminate the assurances of the 30 percent savings, which is a critical part of non-cash compensation for military families,” said Karen Ruedisueli, government relations deputy director for the National Military Family Association.
“We’re also concerned that … if it doesn’t go well, it has the potential to impact so many military families that rely not only on the savings, but also on the access to groceries in remote and isolated areas, as well as overseas,” she added. “We do feel that it introduces risk -- that the 30-percent savings might be eroded or that access might be eroded.”
-- Amy Bushatz contributed to this report.
-- Brendan McGarry can be reached at Brendan.McGarry@military.com