Military stores are gearing up for a potential 4 million extra people who will be eligible to shop at commissaries and exchanges, and to use certain morale, welfare and recreation facilities starting Jan. 1.

The new benefit was authorized by law for all veterans with VA service-connected disability ratings; Purple Heart recipients; veterans who are former prisoners of war; and primary family caregivers of eligible veterans under the VA caregiver program.

It’s the largest patronage expansion in more than 60 years. Currently about 6 million total households are eligible for the benefit; this increases that number by 60 percent. Not all of the 4 million people are expected to use the benefit, because of distance and other factors, but officials are working 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.

Federal officials have determined that disabled veterans will use their Veterans Health Identification Card (VHIC) to gain access to military installations, and to shop and use MWR facilities. The VHIC must display the veteran’s eligibility status — Purple Heart recipient, former POW, or service-connected. Current Defense Department policy and the law have long allowed these benefits for Medal of Honor recipients and veterans with 100 percent service-connected disability ratings.

Most installations’ front gate scanning systems now have the capability to scan the VHIC cards. However, these newly-eligible patrons should allow some extra time when they first visit the installation to stop at the visitor control center, where they must pass an on-the-spot background check. Depending on the type of installation, patrons may be enrolled for recurring access to allow them to proceed to the gate without stopping at the visitor control center on future visits. Spouses can’t buy anything, but they and other family members can accompany the veteran into the store.

An estimated 37,000 veterans qualify for the new benefit, but don’t qualify for the VHIC for various reasons. They won’t have access to the installations during the first phase of the rollout. A credentialing solution is being worked out for these veterans, and will be rolled out at an unspecified later date.

Caregivers approved and designated as the primary family caregivers of eligible veterans under the VA Program of Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers will receive an eligibility letter from the VA’s Office of Community Care.

Newly eligible customers who shop in commissaries will pay a fee of 1.9 percent of their transaction if they pay with a commercial credit card, and 0.5 percent if they use a debit card. These fees won’t apply to those paying with a Military Star card, cash or check. By law, the expansion of customers can’t include extra costs associated with using credit cards in commissaries; the cost must be passed on to the customer. Commercial credit card companies charge transaction fees to retailer when customers use their credit cards. The fees only apply to newly eligible patrons. But as has been the practice for decades, all customers pay a 5 percent surcharge on transactions, required by law to pay for commissary construction, equipment and maintenance.

The benefit extends to revenue-generating MWR activities such as golf courses, bowling centers, movie theaters, RV campgrounds and recreational lodging.

Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.

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