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New access for millions at commissaries

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WASHINGTON — The Pentagon will expand access to discounted, on-post stores for some 4.1 million veterans and some of their caregivers at the beginning of 2020, the Defense Department announced Wednesday.

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The expansion, which begins Jan. 1, will grant veterans with a documented service-related disability, Purple Heart recipients, former prisoners of war and certain Department of Veterans Affairs-approved designated veteran caregivers access to commissaries, military exchanges, and some morale, welfare and recreation services on bases within the United States, the Pentagon announced. The expansion of access was required in the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act named for the late Sen. John McCain.

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"These new privileges recognize the service and sacrifice of these veterans and those that care for them," A.T. Johnston, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for military community and family policy, said in a prepared statement.

For years, eligibility to shop at on-base commissaries and exchanges in the United States has been largely limited to active-duty troops, members of the National Guard and reserves, and military retirees and their family members. In 2017, the Pentagon opened online versions of military exchanges to some 20 million honorably discharged veterans.

Sens. John Boozman, R-Ark., and Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, spearheaded efforts in recent years to open the services to more veterans, especially ones injured in combat or held prisoner.

“If you have the Purple Heart, you should also have access to the commissary. It’s as simple as that,” Schatz said last year.

The senators also touted their plan as an opportunity to strengthen the commissary systems, which have suffered in recent years amid fewer shoppers. Last year, the Defense Commissary Agency announced its sales had slumped 20% during the previous fiveyears. The agency responded by increasing operating hours, adding new products and launching new promotions aimed at driving customers back into the stores.

Defense Department officials said Wednesday that the expansion of access, however, is not designed to “boost retail store profits,” but only to honor the individuals who lawmakers have deemed worthy of receiving the benefits.

Veterans newly eligible to shop at commissaries and exchanges must possess a VA-issued Veteran Health Identification Card in order to be granted access to installations and prove their eligibility, according to a DOD statement announcing the changes. Officials are still finalizing some details, primarily with regard to installation access for people now allowed on military bases by law, the department said Wednesday.

The Pentagon also warned newly eligible shoppers of commissaries will be charged a small “user fee” designed to offset new costs to the Treasury Department for processing additional commercial credit and debit cards. That fee, the cost of which was not specified by Pentagon officials, will be in addition to the 5% surcharge that the commissaries charge all customers to pay for improvements within the stores.

“Even with the surcharge, patrons receive an average worldwide savings of 23.7% over commercial grocery stores,” according to a Pentagon fact sheet detailing the newly granted access.

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