Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) today introduced legislation to strengthen Department of Veterans Affairs survivor benefits.
About 350,000 widows, widowers and children of fallen service members or veterans who died as a result of their service-connected conditions receive benefits today. Many of them are struggling financially. In a recent survey, 44 percent of surviving spouses reported living on less than $20,000 a year.
"Men and women who gave their lives in war or as a result of service to this country have left behind loved ones who deserve a grateful nation's support," Sanders said. "Low-income survivors are at a disadvantage when it comes to reestablishing stability for their families, but their challenges are shared by survivors of all income levels," he added.
The Survivor Benefits Improvement Act of 2013 would:
· Expand help for children. Supplemental payments would be provided for five years instead of the current two years for survivors with children. For the first time, children with the spinal disease spina bifida caused by their parent's exposure to Agent Orange in Thailand during the war in Vietnam would receive care and benefits.
· Remove barriers to benefits. Surviving spouses could remarry at a younger age, consistent with other federal programs, and still maintain their survivor benefits.
· Provide counseling. A pilot program would be created to provide grief counseling in retreat settings for widows and widowers whose spouses died while on active duty in the armed services. The counseling would include information on VA benefits and services available to survivors. To encourage participation, child care would be provided.
Debra Kraus, the Gold Star Wives of America board chairman, called the legislation "the most comprehensive single piece of legislation for survivors in a decade." The leader of the organization for the spouses and children of those who lost their lives while serving in the armed forces added that the bill "addresses many of the concerns of survivors and the inequities within their benefits that have existed for years."