Report

U.S. Lawmakers Press Pompeo to Fix Policy for Diplomat Families

The State Department has scaled back benefits to family members with special needs.

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) questions witnesses during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Capitol Hill on May 26, 2016. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) questions witnesses during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Capitol Hill on May 26, 2016. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Two top Democratic lawmakers say they’re stunned that the State Department has scaled back benefits for diplomats whose family members have special needs and are requesting that U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo outline within 30 days how he proposes to correct the policy.

Sens. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.) made the remarks in a letter to Pompeo on Thursday, saying they were disappointed by the State Department’s “anemic response” to complaints from the diplomats.

“The allegations laid out in reports over the past year are stunning,” Menendez and Murray wrote. They cited two Foreign Policy stories chronicling how the State Department’s Bureau of Medical Services was restricting funding access and benefits for diplomats whose family members have disabilities or need mental health care, and in some cases forcing families to pay back the department for benefits granted years ago.

On Tuesday, FP reported that a group of State Department employees representing some 1,400 families sent a letter to Pompeo in May imploring him to intervene on their behalf and help fix the system.

Nearly three months later, Pompeo has yet to respond.

The letter from the State employees, obtained by FP, highlighted “ongoing mismanagement” in the medical bureau and “growing antagonism toward employees and families.”

“Increasingly, Foreign Service employees are choosing to conceal issues related to their children’s educational and health needs rather than suffer career and family repercussions,” the letter said.

In the lawmakers’ letter, Menendez wrote that he pressed Brian Bulatao—Trump’s nominee for undersecretary of state for management—on the issue during his nomination hearing last month. The lawmakers described the response Bulatao gave as “underwhelming”—he said at the time that he was committed to examining special needs education allowance and implementing programs consistent with law.

The State Department did not respond to a request for comment on the lawmakers’ letter. But in a response to FP’s story on Tuesday, State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said the department convened a working group last year to address the issue and is advancing toward a solution.

“Our diplomats would not be able to perform their jobs without the support of their families, which is why it is important that we address their needs,” she said in an emailed statement on Tuesday.

Menendez is the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which oversees the State Department, and Murray is the top Democrat on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, which oversees issues relating to disabilities and special needs.

“We know that not all of these problems have occurred during your tenure, and, in some cases, predate this administration,” they wrote. “But you are responsible now.”

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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