With lawmakers on a nine-day Presidents Day recess, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta officially notified Congress on Wednesday 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 huge 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 in intelligence.
Also 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 who are 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 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 work force," 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 by nearby communities.
"While civilians will experience the impact directly to their wallets, our service members, retirees and families will clearly feel the effect of these actions. If sequestration is not averted, the associated furloughs will impact our war fighters, our veterans and our family members in untold ways."
At the same Pentagon press conference Wednesday, Robert Hale, the department's chief financial officer, urged Congress to pass a balanced deficit reduction package to avoid sequestration and also to pass a fiscal 2013 defense appropriation bill to replace a continuing budget resolution that has frozen defense spending below fiscal 2012 levels.
Hale dismissed the idea that Congress only needs to give Defense officials flexibility to rebalance billions of dollars between budget accounts.
"I don't think it would help that much this far into the fiscal year," Hale said. "And if it makes sequestration more likely, to either occur or persist, I think it's a bad deal, the flexibility."
Hale warned that if sequestration is triggered and stays in effect into fiscal 2014 and beyond, furloughs this year would turn into job losses and into deeper military personnel cuts, forcing leaders to draft a new defense strategy that would recognize reduced capabilities and a smaller force.
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, moving them to 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 affect 171,000 beneficiaries, is intended to cut Tricare costs for taxpayers.
At the website www.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.
Among Northwest areas in the West Region, Prime networks will end in: Eugene, Medford, Portland and Salem, Ore.; and Yakima.
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