Lawmakers Push to Fix Vets Benefits
President's support may spur passage
The push to give some 57,000 widows and widowers whose spouses died of service-related causes a long-sought upgrade in benefits is gaining momentum in Washington thanks in part to signals coming from the highest of places - 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
In a nationally televised speech before a joint session of Congress last week, President Barack Obama pledged to provide all veterans with expanded benefits and health care. That promise has given a big boost to a nearly decade-long effort by Florida U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson and some of his colleagues in the Senate who want to eliminate a law that unfairly reduces the amount of life insurance benefits offered by the Department of Defense.
More specifically, veterans who die from a service injury or who were disabled before death are entitled to benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs. Some of these vets had purchased or qualified for life insurance offered by the Defense Department's Survivor Benefit Plan. The survivors of vets who chose to buy that insurance have had the insurance benefit greatly reduced - or, offset by the VA benefit -- by as much as $1,200 a month.
Lawmakers and veterans groups contend that's unfair; that the insurance benefit for retirees is due because of premiums paid by the late service member or veteran.
Sens. Jeff Sessions (R-AL), Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), James Inhofe (R-OK), John Kerry (D-MA), Blanche Lincoln (D-AR), Barbara A. Mikulski (D-MD), Olympia Snowe (R-ME), David Vitter (R-LA) and Nelson introduced legislation today that would end the long-standing practice to offset survivor benefits paid by the Defense Department by the dollar amount of similar benefits provided by the VA - in cases where someone qualifies for both.
"The president's vow to expand benefits veterans have earned sends a strong signal that we should fully and finally correct this injustice," Nelson said. "And given his (Obama's) previous support of the legislation while he was in the Senate, I'm hopeful this will be the year we finally get this fixed."
Here's what the other sponsors have to say about eliminating the benefit inequity:
"Our men and women in uniform serve our country with professionalism and dedication, and the government should honor their sacrifice and commitment," said Sen. Sessions. "I have supported efforts to correct this serious injustice faced by veterans' widows and widowers for several years. I'm pleased to be the lead Republican cosponsor of the legislation this year and I'm hopeful that Congress will move quickly to approve this important legislation."
"Our government has treated these families of our fallen heroes in a way that fails to understand or honor the sacrifices they've made on behalf of our country," said Sen. Kerry. "The only thing this offset has done is compound their loss. We need to finally fix this unfair situation by passing this legislation."
"Our brave veterans and their families make great sacrifices on behalf of our nation, and I have long supported eliminating the Survivor Benefit Plan offset," said Sen. Vitter. "When our service members fall in the line of duty, their surviving family members need our support. The SBP offset places an undue financial hardship on these grieving families, and fixing this situation is long overdue."
"With our nation still at war and our economy in crisis, it is unconscionable that the federal government would continue to support a policy that attacks the benefits of the survivors of veterans," said Sen. Snowe. "Survivor benefits and indemnity compensation are two entirely different programs and it is simply wrong to justify reductions in one benefit based on receipt of the other. I will continue to fight against this unreasonable policy until the families of our veterans are dignified with the benefits that fully respect their sacrifice."
"As a nation, we should honor the families of servicemen and women who gave the ultimate sacrifice on behalf of our country. My father and both grandfathers served in uniform and taught me from an early age about the sacrifices our troops and their families make to keep our nation free. This legislation is one way to show our gratitude for their bravery and sacrifice," said Sen. Lincoln.
"This legislation does more than increase benefits. It acknowledges the selfless sacrifice and constant devotion of our men and women in uniform, from those courageously fighting abroad and serving here at home, to all the veterans who have so honorably served before them. I've worked since 2001 to fix inequity with the SBP-DIC offsets," Sen. Inhofe said. "The spouses and dependents who survive our warriors have earned every penny of both the annuity and entitlement. This year, we're going to do everything in our power to see that this language becomes law."
"We must work every day to repay the debt we owe our veterans and their families for the sacrifices they made to protect the liberties our country holds most dear. This bill corrects an unfair practice and is deserving of Congressional action," Sen. Bingaman said.
"We have a sacred trust with the veterans who made the ultimate sacrifice so may live in freedom," Sen. Mikulski said. "Part of that sacred trust is making sure we provide veterans and families with the services and support they need. The SBP offset places an undue financial hardship on these grieving families. It's time to correct this injustice."