WASHINGTON (Army News Service, Jan. 13, 2016) -- A program that helps Soldiers with off-post child care expenses will begin transitioning from the Government Services Administration, or GSA, to a contractor, Feb. 22.

The Army Fee Assistance program helps Soldiers with the cost of off-post child care when on-post care is unavailable. The transition to the contractor, Child Care Aware of America, or CCAoA, will take place over about eight months.

GSA will continue to manage Army Family accounts until the transfer to the contractor is complete in October, said Stephanie Hoehne, director of the Army's Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation activity, which oversees the Army Fee Assistance, or AFA, program.

The program had been under the administration of CCAoA from 2004 until 2014, when it was transferred to GSA. However, under GSA, a backlog of 25,900 items accrued and multiple IT security breaches potentially exposed information from 8,000 Families.

There was no indication by the Army of dissatisfaction with the services provided by CCAoA, which continues to service the fee assistance programs for the Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force. Hoehne said the Army made the decision to move the program to GSA through an interagency agreement which hoped to save the Army $4 million by eliminating a contract during the 2013 sequestration.

The decision was a good one at the time, Hoehne said, but the problem was in the execution and oversight of the transfer and ensuring GSA was prepared to take on the full volume of work, which ultimately did not save money.

Following testimony in September before the same committee, GSA and the Army started taking major steps in rectifying the problems faced by Army families under the GSA administration.

These improvements included reductions of eliminations in long-term backlogs in every major category and a transition away from GSA administration back to the contractor.

"Since September, we have eliminated the backlog of unpaid invoices… and made significant progress in transitioning Army Fee Assistance to Child Care Aware of America," Hoehne said. "In addition, the Army also increased the levels of communication and support to Army families, reiterating our strong commitment to work with GSA to restore AFA to an effective and efficient program."

She said that in October, the Army informed families that GSA had paid the backlogged provider invoices and those families who had paid the subsidy portion of their child care fees to the provider upfront should expect providers to credit their accounts. Hoehne noted that families were encouraged to contact the Army if reconciliations were not made in a timely manner.

Hoehne said the transition will consist of seven geographically defined phases and that all families residing within a geographic area will be transitioned to the contractor as a group. With the formal transition, CCAoA will begin management of any families new to the AFA program regardless of their location.

The formal transition timeline has recovery periods built in and each phase would be monitored and success would be validated before moving on to the next phase. She noted the timeline could be shortened if no problems are encountered in each phase, but, "We were deliberately conservative in planning because care of the families is the priority driving this effort.

"Families will receive email notification with full details seven to 14 days before their account is processed and moved to CCAoA," she told the committee.

To facilitate consistent and effective communication with families, the Army, the contractor and GSA have developed a communication plan that includes scheduled communications throughout the transition.

"These communications will consist of regular emails, website updates, webinars and a designated Facebook page," Hoehne said. "There will be an email link embedded in each communication for Families to contact the Army directly with any questions or concerns."

CCAoA Executive Director Lynette Fraga addressed the committee's concerns on the breach of Family personal information that happened at GSA explaining that the first steps being taken were to screen and conduct background checks of all staff. She said CCAoA would also ensure access to the data system is limited to only high-level managers.

"Since initial discussion with the Army, CCAoA has been developing the required infrastructure to ensure programmatic success," Fraga said. "This includes a Family-centered approach, exceptionally trained and experienced staff and robust work flow and data management systems and protocols."