Over 27,000 Hawaii veterans can now access commissaries and exchanges
The expansion worldwide will extend eligibility to over 4.1 million new patrons, the Defense Department said.
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More than 27,000 veterans with a service-connected disability in Hawaii and over 430 Purple Heart recipients can now shop at commissaries and exchanges and take advantage of greater recreational opportunities under legislation co-authored by U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz that went into effect Wednesday.
Under the Purple Heart and Disabled Veterans Equal Access Act of 2018, former prisoners of war and individuals designated as the primary caregiver of eligible veterans also can access commissaries and exchanges and utilize morale, welfare and recreation activities such as golf, clubs and lodging.
The expansion worldwide will extend eligibility to over 4.1 million new patrons, the Defense Department said. But it expects little to no impact on current or former military members at many locations.
“There may be some impact in areas with a high cost of living, but the department is preparing to accommodate all new patrons,” the Pentagon said.
Schatz, a Hawaii Democrat who introduced the measure with U.S. Sen. John Boozman, a Republican from Arkansas, said a rough estimate for Hawaii is that 27,736 veterans with a
service-connected disability, 432 Purple Heart recipients and 170 caregivers are
eligible for the expanded services.
The change also applies to former POWs and Coast Guard veterans.
“These veterans served, got hurt, and we owe it to them to give them these benefits,” Schatz said in a
release. “This new law means that more veterans
in Hawaii will finally have
access to commissaries and exchanges across the state. The added bonus to our law is that it will strengthen the commissary system in the long run, which is good for both active duty personnel and American taxpayers.”
Congress in recent years has turned an eye to improving the Defense Commissary Agency, which in fiscal 2019 received nearly $1.1 billion in appropriations, generated nearly $5 billion in annual sales and conducted more than 77 million transactions.
Sales are falling, due in part to changing troop numbers but also with a hypercompetitive grocery market and internet sales — raising questions about relevance. Commissaries had 83 million transactions in fiscal 2018.
The sale of goods from commissary department stores to military personnel began in 1825. The Defense Commissary Agency says surveys consistently rate commissaries as one of
the military’s top nonpay benefits.
In light of cost and patronage concerns, the Defense Department has begun planning for a consolidation of the Defense Commissary Agency with the Army and Air Force Exchange Service, the Navy Exchange Services Command and the Marine Corps Exchange.
An April report to Congress noted that the “benefits of consolidating the defense resale entities far outweighs the costs” with
a projected net savings of $700 million to $1.3 billion in combined appropriated and nonappropriated funding over five years.
Until the new law took
effect, commissaries generally provided discounted groceries and household goods to active-duty, Guard and Reserve members, retired service members and authorized family members, according to the Defense Commissary Agency.
In a Q-and-A segment posted Tuesday, the Department of Veterans Affairs spoke to why all veterans can’t have the privileges.
The VA said the scope of operations on military installations is sized to take care of the needs of those military members and their families — and can’t handle all veterans.
Expanding access to
4.1 million new patrons “will already be a test of DoD’s
capacity,” the VA said.
“Inserting another 15 million veterans into the mix would overwhelm the system.”
Newly eligible veterans must show a Veterans Health Identification Card that displays “Purple Heart,” “Former POW” or “Service connected,” or a health eligibility center form. Caregivers must have a VA eligibility letter.
Ron Wuestefeld, a former Schofield Barracks soldier who is now an outreach specialist with the Wounded Warrior Project on Oahu, said he already received commissary privileges because he was medically retired due to knee, back and neck injuries from combat in Iraq.
“I think out here in Hawaii it’s a plus” for the wounded warriors who left military service and lost that access to the commissary, Wuestefeld, 34, said. “It will make their shopping out here a little more affordable.”