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News Digest: July 9

Jul. 8, 2012 - 02:26PM   |  
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VA halts job downgrades

In response to protests, the Veterans Affairs Department has delayed its effort to downgrade the jobs of patient support assistants, housekeepers and other support staff, according to the American Federation of Government Employees.

VA intended to reclassify positions in order to reduce more than 6,000 job descriptions to 1,200 by April 2014 — which would result in downgrades of employees at the lower end of the General Schedule grades, such as GS-5s and GS-4s, according to AFGE.

But VA’s human resources office issued a letter July 3 calling for a “temporary stand down on changes to lower grade actions.” The department has also established a working group to work with AFGE when reclassifying employees.

“The bullying of the lowest wage earners under the pretense of saving a few dollars must end. It has severely harmed the agency’s morale and impeded patient care,” said AFGE National President John Gage.

VA did not respond to requests for comment.

7,400 may accept USPS buyouts, early outs

As many as 7,400 postmasters and full-time mail handlers could soon retire or quit under separate buyout offers, the U.S. Postal Service estimates, based on applications received by the July 2 sign-up deadline.

Although applicants can still change their minds, the Postal Service anticipates that between 3,800 and 4,200 postmasters will decide to take advantage of the $20,000 buyout, spokesman Mark Saunders said in an email.

Full-time mail handlers are being offered $15,000; the Postal Service expects that between 2,800 and 3,200 mail handlers will leave, Saunders said.

Part-time career mail handlers, who are eligible for a prorated share of the buyout based on hours worked in the last year, have until July 16 to decide whether to stay or go.

OPM whittles away at pension backlog

The Office of Personnel Management has cut its backlog of unprocessed pension claims by 21 percent in the five months since it unveiled a new strategy to fix the longstanding problem.

According to statistics posted online last week, OPM cut the backlog by 1,150 cases in June, bringing the backlog down to 48,323 unprocessed claims. In January, the inventory was 61,108.

Despite the progress in 2012, the size of the backlog is still greater than it was in October 2010, when OPM Director John Berry pledged to fix the problem. That month — when Federal Times first reported that many retirees were waiting six months to a year for pensions that were often half of what they were owed — OPM said it had 38,400 cases backlogged.

OPM processed 8,964 cases in June, about the same as in May. That is more than the 8,500 claims it expected to process in June.

Execs’ financial reports due within 45 days

Thousands of Senior Executive Service members and other top government officials must more frequently report stock sales and other financial transactions worth more than $1,000 under new requirements that took effect last week.

Up to now, such transactions had to be reported only once a year on the public financial disclosure statement known as Office of Government Ethics Form 278. Now, senior officials must report within 45 days, under the recently passed STOCK Act.

Navy, USMC consolidate Microsoft licenses

The Navy has signed a $700 million enterprise licensing agreement with Microsoft in an effort to reduce costs.

The agreement, through 2015, consolidates previous Microsoft enterprise licenses for the Navy and Marine Corps, according to a July 5 post on the Department of the Navy Chief Information Officer’s website.

All Navy and Marine Corps organizations and programs are required to use enterprise licenses when available.

$1.4 billion e-travel contract hit by protest

The General Services Administration’s $1.4 billion e-travel contract award to Concur Technologies Inc. has come under fire.

In a protest filed last month with the Government Accountability Office, incumbent vendor CWT Sato Travel claimed that the 15-year contract award to Washington-based Concur would create a monopoly on federal travel services for all civilian agencies.

CWT Sato Travel, which operates one of three existing federal e-travel systems, is also protesting GSA’s evaluation of the industry proposals.

In its protest, CWT Sato Travel said GSA’s solicitation allowed bidders to “impose unique parameters and limitations on the amount of work that they would be required to perform.”

GSA ultimately did not evaluate bid offers on a common basis, according to the protest.

Cyber attacks on critical infrastructure increase

The number of attempted and successful cyber attacks against critical infrastructure — such as dams, energy and water systems — rose more than 383 percent from 2010 to 2011, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

Owners and operators of critical infrastructure reported 198 incidents in 2011 to DHS’ Industrial Control Systems Cyber Emergency Response Team (ICS-CERT), up from 41 incidents in 2010, the first full year that ICS-CERT was in operation.

Attackers used various methods to gain access to critical systems, including spear phishing or targeted emails that convince recipients to open malicious files or click on presumably harmless hyperlinks, according to the June 28 report.

The energy and water sectors reported the highest number of incidents: 41 percent for the water sector in 2011 and 16 percent for the energy sector. Government facilities made up 6 percent of reported attacks.

Support grows for firefighter health coverage

A seasonal firefighter’s petition for federal health care benefits may be starting to yield results.

The Federal Wildland Fire Service Association said last week it is working with an unnamed Colorado lawmaker to reintroduce a 2009 bill to provide seasonal firefighters access to the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program.

The association’s July 5 announcement came roughly three weeks after a firefighter’s online petition for health benefits spread across the Web and quickly gained signatures.

Temporary Forest Service firefighter John Lauer started the petition after the son of his friend and fellow firefighter was born prematurely. Because Lauer’s friend didn’t have FEHBP coverage, the child’s treatments cost him $70,000.

Rep. Bob Filner, D-Calif., introduced the 2009 bill, but it never came up for a committee vote.

Tricare contract upheld

The Government Accountability Office on July 2 upheld a Pentagon decision to award the $20.5 billion contract to manage the Tricare West region to UnitedHealth Group, the nation’s largest insurer.

The decision strips the business from Phoenix-based TriWest Healthcare, which has held the contract since 1996.

TriWest had been granted the contract in 2009, but after UnitedHealth lost its bid to manage a different Tricare region contract, it persuaded the government to reopen the bidding process for the West region.

The Defense Department decided March 16 to award the contract to UnitedHealth. But TriWest protested, arguing its bid was lower and the government had not fully vetted UnitedHealth.

GAO did not reveal its reasons for upholding the Pentagon decision. A thorough report on the process will be released in the coming weeks.

A Tricare spokesman said the transition would begin immediately and beneficiaries can expect UnitedHealth to assume complete management beginning April 1.

SAIC protests DoD contract with Lockheed

Science Applications International Corp. is protesting a $4.6 billion award to Lockheed Martin Corp. to support the Defense Information Systems Network.

Incumbent SAIC was awarded the previous contract in October 2001 to operate the Defense Department’s global data network.

“We feel our solution is the best value for the customer, and we are proud of our performance history on this contract,” SAIC spokeswoman Melissa Koskovich said in a statement.

The protest was filed June 22 with the Government Accountability Office. GAO will issue a decision on the protest by Oct. 1.

SAIC’s current contract expires Sept. 30.

VA plans to cut staffing at regional offices

The Veterans Affairs Department plans to cut staffing at its sprawling regional management offices, as officials seek to head off legislation that would slash the number of those offices from 21 to 12.

The proposed cuts will be part of a broader realignment set to go to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki for approval in a few weeks, VA’s William Schoenhard told the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee last month.

The regional offices have a combined workforce of more than 1,700 employees, according to VA. The department hopes to avoid layoffs and instead handle the reductions through attrition and relocations, Schoenhard, who oversees health operations and management at the department, said after the hearing.

When VA executives created the regional offices, known as veterans integrated service networks (VISNs), in 1995, they predicted they would run on a staff of 220 with an annual budget of $27 million. Along with a much larger workforce, the 21 offices cumulatively spend more than $203 million a year, the department’s inspector general recently concluded.

Besides cutting the number of networks to 12, a bill by Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., would cap staff at each remaining management office at 65 employees.

OMB threatens veto on key spending bill

The White House has threatened a veto of a House spending bill that contains no federal pay raise.

The Office of Management and Budget said advisers would recommend President Obama veto HR 6020, the financial services and general government appropriations bill, if it were to be passed by Congress.

OMB objected to the absence of the president’s desired 0.5 percent pay raise in fiscal 2013, which would break the current two-year pay freeze. The financial services bill usually contains a pay raise, but this bill contains neither a pay raise nor a measure freezing pay.

The House Appropriations Committee approved the bill June 20.

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