March 28, 2005

Reservists' travel-pay problems widespread, GAO report says

By JOSEPH CHENELLY - Federal Times

National Guardsmen and reservists mobilized since Sept. 11, 2001, have experienced significant problems getting paid back for travel expenses, and there is no evidence the planned solution will work, according to a Government Accountability Office report.

The report says more than two-thirds of the Army guardsmen and reservists GAO interviewed had problems receiving accurate, timely travel claims.

Some soldiers were forced to wait more than a year for travel claims to be settled, leaving them to shoulder the costs of paying off DoD travel cards. The study looked at 10 units mobilized between Oct. 1, 2001, and Nov. 30, 2003.

Soldiers of the 190th Military Police Company out of Georgia incurred more than $200,000 in debts because of confusion over rules concerning commuting areas and per diem for meals, the report states. That debt was paid by taking money from soldiers while they were in Iraq, Gregory Kutz, GAO's director of financial management and assurance, told a congressional panel March 16.

All 107 of the 115th Military Police Battalion soldiers who took part in the study were denied per diem despite being housed off base. The report says the Maryland battalion soldiers hitchhiked and rode bicycles more than three miles to dining facilities.

Twenty-three recommendations were made in the GAO report, which was given to the Defense Department in

November but released to the public March 16. The Defense Department says that it agreed with each recommendation, at least in part, and that the Defense Finance and Accounting Service and the Army are moving ahead on several fixes. Soldiers and commanders are receiving literature and training on what is and what is not reimbursable. Materials also are being distributed at mobilization sites that explain how to prepare travel claims, according to Patrick Shine, DFAS' director of military and civilian pay services.

The Defense Department did not fully concur with a GAO recommendation related to late fees. Kutz told the panel that because DFAS could not identify the soldiers who did not receive travel settlements within 30 days, it was not paying legally required late fees and interest to the soldiers. The GAO report said changes in policy are needed to make that happen

But the Defense Department said the developmental Defense Travel System will ensure payments are always on time and no such fees will need to be paid.

Shine told lawmakers that a spike in mobilizations in the summer of 2003 overwhelmed DFAS' "semi-automatic process."

The Army funded the hiring of additional staffers for DFAS, which is prepared to maintain the eight-day turnaround until the Defense Travel System is in place throughout the Defense Department in fiscal 2006, Shine said.

But the GAO report contradicts that plan. "DTS is currently not able to process travel authorizations and vouchers for mobilized Army Guard soldiers and calculate late payment interest and fees," Kutz said. "Given that the effort has been under way for about eight years and will not address key issues specific to mobilized Army Guard soldiers, it is likely that the department will be relying on the existing paper-intensive, manual, error-prone system for the foreseeable future."