Defense Department civilian employees would be able to shop at military exchanges, under a policy change working its way through the final stages of the approval process, officials said.

Officials expect it would bring about 575,000 new eligible customers into exchanges, said Berry Patrick, who works in the DoD Office of Morale, Welfare and Recreation and Nonappropriated Fund Policy, during a virtual conference of the American Logistics Association Tuesday.

He said it will probably be after Election Day before the initiative gets final approval. There are about 796,000 DoD civilians in the U.S., but about 221,000 of those employees already have exchange benefits resulting from another beneficiary category such as retiree or military spouse, he said. The new benefit would apply to both appropriated fund and nonappropriated fund employees, he said.

The employees would use their Common Access Card for the benefit.

Commissary access for DoD civilian employees is not under consideration right now, he said.

Patrick said officials believe the benefit will be used more by the civilian employees than by disabled veterans, who were granted commissary, exchange and some MWR benefits as of Jan. 1, 2020. The usage by that population has been less than expected, he said, largely because of the pandemic which has forced restrictions on access to many installations. In addition, many of the 4.2 million newly eligible disabled veterans don’t live near an installation.

DoD civilians are on the base every day, he noted. Based on projections of buying patterns, he said, they estimate exchange sales could increase by about $287 million a year, with a potential increase of $48 million in profits going back to support the services' MWR programs. DoD has been deliberating the policy change for about three years.

One indicator of the popularity of the benefit among DoD employees was the situation in March, when DoD gave base commanders temporary authority to give commissary and exchange privileges to DoD civilians and contractor employees considered mission critical. Many people misinterpreted that to mean that every DoD mission-critical civilian employee automatically got those privileges, and DoD officials were getting phone calls from those potential customers, he said. But it was up to each installation, and some commanders gave the privileges while others didn’t, for various reasons such as concern about the strains on the supply chain’s ability to provide enough products for the stores.

Patrick said as the new benefit rolled out in January to disabled veterans, caregivers and others authorized by law, everything was in place within the resale community, MWR and for installation access. A post-implementation assessment showed there was no negative impact on the facilities, he said.

But COVID came along, resulting in impacts from a variety of reasons, to include some installations limiting access to their installations. Those issues have ebbed and flowed, he said. Currently only about 200,000 in this population of 4.2 million are using their benefits, and exchanges and commissaries have the capacity to take on larger numbers, Patrick said.

Through Sept. 30, commissaries logged about 503,000 transactions from the newly eligible population, and the exchanges estimated about 1.2 million combined transactions over that time period, he said.

He asked for attendees' help in continuing to promote the benefit to the newly eligible population. “We have a long way to go to get from 200,000 to the 4.2 million” extra disabled veterans and others who can use the benefits now, he said.

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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