Defense Department working on policy to pay back contractors faster for work stopped by COVID

The DoD Reporter’s Notebook is a weekly summary of personnel, acquisition, technology and management stories that may have fallen below your radar during the past week, but are nonetheless important. It’s compiled and published each Monday by Federal News Network DoD reporters Jared Serbu and Scott Maucione.

Paying contractors for lost time

The Defense Department has been slowly reimbursing companies for work that is unable to be completed because of the coronavirus. However, Pentagon acquisition chief Ellen Lord said it may be coming faster in the near future.

Lord told members of the Professional Services Council that DoD sent a policy over to the Office of Management and Budget that would push through claims for payments of $2 million or less.

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“We have developed a streamlined path forward for low dollar value reimbursements under $2 million, and a path to settle globally at a company or division level that will eliminate the need to have proposals and negotiations on the contract-by-contract basis,” Lord said.

DoD is planning to use a tiered system that will look at claims depending on how large they are and impose varying levels of oversight over them.

DoD has been trying to figure out where the money will come from to pay for employees who were forced to take leave because of COVID-19 restrictions. Section 3610 of the CARES Act gives federal agencies the ability to reimburse those costs; however, it did not provide the appropriations to do so.

DoD estimates it could take at least $10.8 billion, and that is a conservative estimate considering two months have passed since the Pentagon came out with that number. DoD has been reluctant to give out money without getting funds from Congress to do so.

PSC President and CEO David Berteau said most of the payouts have been to companies working in the intelligence community.

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“You’ve got highly cleared individuals, they can’t get in the classified areas because the area wasn’t built with six feet of distance between every worker,” he told Federal News Network. “They can’t telework because you don’t have access to the classified networks on a home computer. But the agencies and the companies know we’ve invested decades in building this workforce and have got to make sure it’s still here when we need it.”

DoD estimates the $10.8 billion in lost work from March 15 to June 15 affected more than 106,000 jobs.

“The data from industry is showing approximately a 30-40% inefficiency across the defense industrial base but in certain sectors like shipbuilding we are seeing about a 50-60% inefficiency,” a DoD report states.

COVID-related work issues range from space to land to special operations programs.

“BAE York shut down for two days, returned with 50% workforce; General Dynamics Land Systems in Lima, Ohio, halted a section of line for two weeks due to COVID-infected employees. Additional inefficiencies resulted from social distancing and sub tier reporting issues,” the report states.

It should be noted that some big defense contractors like Lockheed Martin are still doing well. Lockheed reported net sales of $16.2 billion in the second quarter of 2020, $1.8 billion more than last year.

Congress just went on its August recess without striking a deal on a second coronavirus relief package. The Republican Senate’s proposal has $30 billion for DoD, $10 billion of which would help pay contractors. However, the plan is coming under fire for stuffing weapons procurement into that $30 billion, for things like aircraft repair and the acquisition of fighter jets.

House lawmakers may not bite on helping DoD pay for its contracting expenses.

“We don’t need to give them any more money,” House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) said at the end of June. “The last time I looked they had not yet spent even half of the stimulus money. Gosh, everybody, every state, every locality, every federal agency, certainly every business has had to adjust in light of COVID-19 and the impact that it has had. I have yet to see evidence that DoD cannot adjust within their existing budget string.” — SM


A third of DoD schools will start remote

About one third of Defense Department schools will be teaching remotely as a consequence of COVID-19.

That translates to half of the DoD-run schools in the United States. All of the schools that will be working remotely in the U.S. are in the south, where there has been a larger resurgence of coronavirus. Nineteen schools will be working remotely in Japan and two in Bahrain.

The planning process began six months ago,” Thomas Brady, director of DoD’s Education Activity said. “The good news is we’re learning lessons from what we went through with the remote learning in March through the end of the year. We’ve incorporated all of those CDC guidance and the Department of Defense guidance into our opening of school execution at the school level. Our administration and our teachers are aware of the safety measures that have been put in place.”

More than 61,000 students are enrolled in school through DoD. Most students attend schools that are not on the installations. More than 15,000 students will be working in a remote environment with their local teacher. Another 10,000 students will be attending DoDEA’s Virtual School.

“Remote schooling is geared for classes, and think of it as the teacher is teaching their class on the computer and the children are home and the teacher is home,” Brady said. “They modify the instruction based on what would have happened in the classroom. And it’s with your classmates. It’s your classes you’re seeing on the Zoom classroom and the Google Classroom, you’re doing assignments.”

Virtual schools have been operated by DoD for 10 years. The curriculum is made for computer learning.

“It’s designed from start to finish as virtual, whereas remote it’s a curriculum that is modified and it’s  bringing the brick and mortar classroom to the computer,” Brady said. “It was aimed primarily for high school students who are in remote locations who can’t take particular courses. For example, AP chemistry would be difficult to do if we don’t have the staff and the equipment at a remote high school. They’re allowed to do it through virtual schools where the curriculum is designed for computers.”

Schools working remotely will be considered for reopening when the local health protection level at the installation is changed to allow people to congregate. — SM


Military fails on mental health

The Military Health System is not meeting proper mental health standards of care for active duty service members and their families.

A new report from the Defense Department Inspector General found more than half of the service members in need of mental health care, and who were referred to outside help, did not get the treatment they needed. The Military Health System was unable to explain why.

Additionally, about half of the military health clinics the DoD IG visited did not meet the standards of care by making service members wait more than four weeks for appointments and lacking models that identify the amount of staffing a clinic may need.

“As a result, thousands of active duty service members and their families may have experienced delays in obtaining mental health care. The delays may have involved numerous members not being able to: see the right provider at the right time, obtain mental health care at all, or receive timely follow-up treatment,” the authors of the report state. “All of these types of delays in mental health care increase the risk of jeopardizing patient safety and affecting the readiness of the force.”

For example, active duty service members referred to the TRICARE network for mental health care waited on average 57 days for counseling and therapy intake and 79 days for psychiatry at Naval Health Clinic Oak Harbor in Washington.

DoD IG made 14 recommendations to the DoD assistant secretary for health affairs and the director of the Defense Health Agency.

The suggestions included changing policy so there isn’t an eight-visit limitation for outpatient mental health care.

DoD IG also told DoD to develop a single staffing approach for the behavioral health system to estimate the number of appointments and personnel required to meet the demand. — SM