The U.S. Embassy in Berlin, Germany. (STATE DEPARTMENT)
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The flow of mail including prescription drugs sent through the Tricare Mail-Order Pharmacy program is about to slam to a halt for about 4,800 military retirees and their survivors living overseas who use APO and FPO addresses at U.S. embassies and consulates.
Neither State Department nor Defense Department officials would confirm a date when mail will stop, but other sources said the effective date at the moment is Dec. 31.
The change will not affect others with APO or FPO mail privileges on overseas military installations, including about 20,000 military retirees who have such addresses because of some other connection to the military community having a Defense Department civilian job, or being married to an active-duty member assigned overseas, for example. Nor will it affect Defense Department personnel, both military and civilian officially assigned to embassies and consulates.
The change will limit affected retirees to using foreign mail systems that in some parts of the world can be slow, unreliable or expensive.
"Eliminating embassy mail privileges for American military retirees overseas was a poor decision on a number of levels," said Joe Davis, a spokesman for Veterans of Foreign Wars. "Not only will the U.S. government have to pay higher postage rates, they will no longer be able to guarantee delivery once it enters a foreign postal system. "
Some retirees who have received APO/FPO mail through embassies and consulates are particularly concerned about the effect on Tricare Mail-Order Pharmacy prescriptions.
"Congress needs to get involved immediately," Davis said.
Tricare will continue to process prescriptions through Dec. 1 to allow time for delivery before the mail service ends, said spokeswoman Bonnie Powell.
Tricare will begin sending out letters to affected retirees in the next few weeks to let them know of the change and their prescription options, she said.
The core issue is a change in mail delivery responsibility for embassies and consulates, said a government official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
For about two years, officials from the State Department and Pentagon have been working to shift mail delivery to State Department facilities overseas from the traditional APO/FPO addresses to a new designation to be known as DPO, for Diplomatic Post Offices.
Under the current system, the Defense Department covers the cost of getting APO/FPO mail from the U.S. port of embarkation to overseas locations, which is the most expensive part of the process. The State Department covers similar costs for diplomatic mail.
The sender whether Tricare, the Defense Finance and Accounting Service, the Veterans Affairs Department, or a relative or friend of a retiree pays only regular domestic rates to get the mail to the postal facility at the U.S. port of embarkation where APO/FPO mail is processed for overseas delivery.
As part of the initiative to separate State Department and military mail, State has said it cannot be responsible for the costs of mail going to military retirees at embassies and consulates. Although no firm cost estimates available, sources said the cost is considerable.
State Department retirees living in overseas areas have never been authorized to receive APO/FPO mail, nor will they be authorized to receive DPO mail, the source said.
Complicating the issue further, the Defense Department, by law, cannot pay the State Department for delivery of military retiree mail, the source said. Defense and service officials reportedly are considering whether to pursue legislation that would allow the Defense Department to pay for military retiree mail to embassies and consulates, but cost is part of that decision.
The source said there has been "significant emotional discussion" about the fact that if retirees and their survivors are not notified in time to make alternate plans for getting their medications through Tricare, their health and even lives could be in jeopardy.
The source said this only applies to post offices that will be converted to DPOs, and they will not be converted before this issue has been resolved.
The largest number of affected retirees are in Panama.
Retired Air Force Master Sgt. Jose Claudio, commander of the Latin America/Carribean chapter of the VFW, said about 900 military retirees are registered with the U.S. Consulate in Panama for mail purposes.
"It's a mess for a lot of people living in Panama, especially the widows," Claudio said.
"This will have a big impact on the veterans, widows and children," said retired Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Floyd Skoubo, who handles Tricare issues for the VFW in Panama.
Many retirees also get Social Security, military retirement and disability benefit checks through embassy and consulate post offices, Skoubo said.
Using local foreign mail, those checks would become lucrative targets for theft, he said.
In addition, he said, veterans living abroad must also file U.S. tax returns, and mail in their payments for taxes. "These could also be lost in local postal offices and mail forwarders," he said.