Everything You Need to Know About Vets' and Caregivers' New Base Access

A commissary shoper completes her transaction at the Camp Humphreys, South Korea, Commissary.  (DeCA photo: Rick Brink)
A commissary shoper completes her transaction at the Camp Humphreys, South Korea, Commissary. (DeCA photo: Rick Brink)

New commissary and exchange customers will be granted on-base access in two phases, based on whether they have a Department of Veterans Affairs health insurance card, according to new information released by the Pentagon.

The VA and Defense Department have fleshed out some of their plans to let 4.1 million new customers enjoy access next year to commissaries, military exchanges and recreation facilities located on secure military installations.

Here's what the latest plans mean for eligible veterans and their caregivers:

Am I eligible? Where can I shop when it comes into effect?

Purple Heart recipients, former prisoners of war, veterans with any service-connected disability and caregivers registered with the VA's Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers program will be able to shop beginning Jan. 1. Reserve members who fit this description will also have access.

Related: New Commissary, Exchange Access Delayed for Many Veterans

These veterans and caregivers will be able to shop at commissaries and exchanges and use some MWR facilities, such as golf courses, bowling alleys and movie theaters. Services that rely on appropriations to operate, including military uniform items and child development programs, will not be available.

The DoD has been working with the VA, Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Treasury to give these new customers access, integrating them into the complex security systems of military installations.

Retired service members, Medal of Honor recipients and veterans with a service-related disability rating of 100 percent will continue to have access to on-base facilities and can obtain a DoD identification card to get on base.

I'm an eligible veteran. What do I do to get access?

Veterans with a VA's Veteran Health Identification Card (VHIC) will be able to shop online and get on base to shop in-person at commissaries, exchanges and some MWR facilities.

Veterans who don't have a VHIC will be able to shop only online, with access to MWR online and AmericanForcesTravel.com, until the DoD figures out how to give them secure access to bases, officials said.

"When DoD and VA identify a credentialing solution for all Veterans eligible under the Purple Heart and Disabled Veterans Equal Access Act of 2018," the guidance states, "DoD will roll out a new phase of access to accommodate current veterans who are not eligible to obtain a VHIC but are eligible for these privileges."

Currently, all honorably discharged veterans can shop online through the Veterans Online Shopping Benefit. They can set up an account for any of the military exchange websites: Army and Air Force Exchange System, Coast Guard Exchange, Marine Corps Exchange, Navy Exchange Command, and the Veterans Canteen Service.

Veterans with a VHIC can check in with the base visitor control center to gain base access beginning Jan. 1.

Everyone will have to pass a basic, on-the-spot background check with initial access, and have an automated check each subsequent time. Veterans or caregivers with felony convictions, felony arrest warrants or derogatory information related to criminal history or terrorism will be prohibited from entering.

Depending on the type of installation, these VHIC-carrying veterans will be able to enroll in recurring access, which lets them bypass the visitor control center each time by entering through the gates.

What is a Veteran Health Identification Card and can I use a Veteran Identification Card?

VHIC cards are issued to veterans enrolled in VA health care. In order to use the VHIC, it must display the veteran's eligibility status, like Purple Heart, former POW or service-connected disability.

The VIC is issued to any honorably or generally discharged veteran and is not an accepted identification to provide access to the installations.

More information about the VHIC card can be found at Va.gov/healthbenefits/vhic. The guidance states the VA expects it might see an increase in the number of veterans requesting consideration for service-connected disability ratings and applying for health care benefits to obtain a VHIC.

What is the process for a caregiver?

The process for caregivers registered in the Program of Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers to access the commissaries, exchanges and MWRs is similar to that of VHIC-holding veterans. However, caregivers will receive a letter issued by the VA Office of Community Care saying they qualify as a primary family caregiver of an eligible veteran.

To be admitted on base and to purchase items from the commissary or exchange, they will need to bring the VA letter plus one of the following types of identification. For a full list, refer to the guidance on page 8.

  • DoD common access card
  • REAL ID-compliant driver's license or other ID issued by a state, territory, possession or the District of Columbia
  • U.S. passport or passport card
  • Foreign passport bearing an unexpired immigrant or non-immigrant visa or entry stamp
  • Federal personal identity verification card
  • VHIC
  • Transportation Worker Identification Card

Within 30 days of receiving their eligibility letter, caregivers will be able to shop at the exchanges online like non-VHIC holding veterans, except for the Veterans Canteen Service.

Caregivers who are not a part of the VA's official program do not qualify for shopping privileges. The DoD might expand access to non-registered caregivers in the future, the policy says.

Can my spouse shop on my behalf?

No, at least not right now. Currently, an authorized caregiver will be classified only as someone approved and designated as the primary family caregiver of an eligible veteran under the Program of Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers.

The DoD said in this new guidance it will consider expanding caregiver privileges to the disabled veteran's spouse when the VA formalizes approval and designation of general caregivers under the program.

In the meantime, there's nothing to stop a spouse from getting a base visitor pass and going to the store with the veteran. However, like all base visitors, they will need to pass a background check.

I already have access to shop in commissaries and exchanges. How will this affect me?

The guidance states most locations will "experience little to no impact on current operations," but there might be a "low to moderate impact" to installations in high cost-of-living areas.

"Commissary, exchange and morale, welfare and recreation retail facilities are preparing to welcome home these patrons without disrupting the current service experience for authorized patrons," it states.

What will it cost me?

The commissary sells its grocery items at cost and boasts "an average worldwide savings of 23.7 percent over commercial grocery shopping." While it has no state or local food tax, it imposes a 5 percent surcharge meant to help with store upkeep and construction of new stores.

As required by the Act, these new customers will have to pay an additional charge if they use a commercial credit card or debit card. These credit cards or a Signature debit card will result in an additional 1.9 percent user fee, while other debit card transactions will have a 0.5 percent user fee. This fee will not be refunded when returning a product.

Veterans and caregivers can avoid these fees by using cash, check or the credit card offered by the military resale system, the Military Star card. Customers using electronic benefit transfer cards, like Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, will also avoid the fee.

There will be no such charge at exchanges or for MWR purchases.

-- Dorothy Mills-Gregg can be reached at dorothy.mills-gregg@military.com.

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