Your Questions Answered: New Commissary Access for Vets and Caregivers

CLICK2GO shopper picks up her order at the Naval Air Station Oceana’s commissary.
Coleen Starks, CLICK2GO shopper, picks one of the first orders for the Naval Air Station Oceana’s CLICK2GO grand opening June 3, 2019. (Keith Desbois/DECA)

While some are making their New Year's resolutions, about four million veterans and caregivers will be making shopping lists as they gain access to commissaries and exchanges as of Jan. 1.

After months of planning, the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Defense Department have worked out several of the challenges involved in letting these newly eligible customers on base to shop in 2020.

Here are the latest answers to veterans' and caregivers' questions about access and the guest policy:

Who is eligible? When and where can I shop?

Commissaries, exchanges and some morale, welfare and recreation (MWR) facilities will be open to 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 beginning Jan. 1. Reserve members who fit this description will also have access.

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

The DoD has been working with the VA, Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Treasury for the past year to integrate these new customers into the complex security systems of military installations so they can shop.

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.

As an eligible veteran, how will I shop?

The DoD and VA have approved two ways for newly eligible veterans to get on bases to use their benefits in person: the VA's Veteran Health Identification Card (VHIC) or a letter from the VA along with an acceptable REAL ID-compliant identification, which includes passports and some state driver's licenses.

The VHIC must show the veteran's eligibility status -- Purple Heart, Former POW or Service Connected -- on the front, under the photo, to be accepted. More information about VHICs can be found on the VA's website here.

Access to bases will not be granted to new customers who qualify for VA health care, but are not enrolled in it and thus do not have a VHIC, according to the latest Military OneSource news release.

"If they choose not to apply for enrollment to obtain a VHIC, they will not have access," a DoD spokeswoman said via email, adding that only the VA can verify the eligibility of veterans and caregivers.

A Veteran Identification Card will not be accepted.

What if I don't have a VHIC?

The "small group" of veterans who do not qualify for VHIC due to a non-compensable service-connected condition rated at 0% will need a REAL-ID compliant identification and their Health Eligibility Center Form H623A, which shows they are in Priority Group 8E. This is "temporary" until the DoD and VA can come up with a long-term alternative for these veterans, officials said.

Veterans who can't locate their HEC H623A letter can call the VA at 1-877-222-VETS (8387).

Beginning Jan. 1, these newly eligible veterans will have to pass an initial basic, on-the-spot background check to gain access and then 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 and enter through the gates. A spouse or anyone accompanying them might also be able to enroll in this recurring access if the guest has an identification that supports it, according to a recent Military OneSource news release.

The veteran's VHIC or letter will be used at the point of sale. The cashier will either scan the card or manually input a code when the VA HEC Form H623A is used.

Currently, all honorably discharged veterans can shop over the internet 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.

Can I bring a guest with me to go shopping?

Yes, but the guest cannot buy anything and they must be with the sponsor at all times.

Some readers have reported that bases are not complying with this policy.

Asked about that, a DoD spokeswoman said in an email that the Office of the Secretary of Defense is providing "ongoing" information to military departments and "recently" distributed some to use in training installation security personnel and resale and MWR personnel.

"Training of installation-level security personnel is ongoing for all procedures due in part to routine employee turnover and any changes to security postures that may occur," the spokeswoman said. "Installation security processes will vary among the Services, and from installation to installation within a Service, depending on local security circumstances."

She directed further questions about the processes or timing of training to the particular installation's public affairs office.

What is the process for a caregiver?

The process has not changed since the original policy guidance issued for caregivers registered in the VA's Program of Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers to access commissaries, exchanges and MWR facilities.

It is similar to that of VHIC-holding veterans, but 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 their VA letter plus one of the types of identification listed below. For a full list, refer to the guidance on page 9.

  • 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

Caregivers have been able to shop at the exchanges online since receiving their eligibility letter. When shopping on base, caregivers will use this letter at the point of sale; since it can't be scanned like the VHIC, the cashier will manually put it into the register.

Caregivers who are not 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 states.

What type of MWR facilities will I be eligible for?

Newly eligible veterans and caregivers will be able to shop at commissaries and exchanges and use some MWR facilities: golf courses, bowling alleys, movie theaters, marinas and kennels.

Services that rely on appropriations to operate, such as military uniform stores, child development programs and fitness centers or gyms, will not be available.

The DoD official temporary duty and permanent change-of-station lodging facilities will be on a space-available basis. Meanwhile, each military department will decide whether the MWR ticket office, which sells discount attraction tickets, or the craft and hobby activities will be available.

Wait, there are fees?

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

Per the law, in addition to this surcharge, these newly eligible patrons will be charged a 1.9% fee to use a credit card and .5% fee for a debit card. To avoid these fees, which may change annually, caregivers and veterans can use cash or checks or apply for the Military Star card, which is managed by AAFES.

Customers using electronic benefit transfer cards, such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, will also avoid the fee.

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

Can I use my benefits if I live overseas?

That depends on "applicable host nation laws" and international agreements, such as status of forces agreements.

-- Dorothy Mills-Gregg can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @DMillsGregg.

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