By David Levinsky
Congressman Jon Runyan's three-year fight to make cost-of-living adjustments for veterans' benefits automatic rather than subject to congressional approval took a giant step forward Tuesday as the full U.S. House of Representatives voted to approve his bill to make the change beginning in 2014.
The bill, known as the American Heroes COLA Act, was introduced by Runyan in February and would automatically boost benefits for disabled veterans and the survivors of deceased veterans each year that Social Security benefits are changed.
The House approved the measure Tuesday afternoon by a voice vote.
Adjustments to Social Security and veterans benefits are made annually based on the federal consumer price index, but unlike Social Security benefits, which are changed automatically, increases to veterans' benefits currently must be authorized by Congress each year.
That may not seem problematic, but last year the boost was threatened after Congress waited until Nov. 13 to approve a 1.7 percent increase that took effect Dec. 1. The passage gave the Department of Veterans Affairs just enough time to process the change so that January checks reflected it.
"With today's vote, disabled veterans are one step closer to an automatic cost-of-living adjustment," Runyan, R-3rd of Mount Laurel, said Tuesday. "Instead of subjecting these benefits to the ebb and flow of congressional action, this bill provides veterans with greater certainty that they will receive the benefits they have earned through their service."
Since being sworn into office in 2011, Runyan has made the passage of a veterans COLA bill one of his top priorities. During his first two years, he was able to get a one-year adjustment through the House and Senate signed into law, but separate legislation he penned to make the changes automatic stalled.
This year marks the first time his bill reached the House floor and won approval.
Although the bill had bipartisan support, it wasn't completely without controversy, as the Disabled American Veterans and other veterans' groups opposed a cost-saving provision that rounds benefit increases down to the next lowest dollar.
The practice is already in use, but veterans' groups oppose it, claiming it costs veterans over time.
To address the veterans' complaints, the House first approved an amendment to Runyan's bill directing the savings from rounding down checks to be used to pay for increases in monthly compensation provided to severely injured veterans.
In a floor statement before the vote, Runyan endorsed the change.
Dave Autry, deputy director of communications for the Disabled American Veterans, said the group was still opposed to the cost-saving practice and would lobby members of the Senate to change it when they take up the legislation.
Autry also said the group remains concerned about proposed changes in the way the consumer price index is calculated that could also impact how much veterans receive.
Despite those issues, Autry said the organization strongly supports making the COLA automatic.
"It would be one less thing for Congress to wrangle over," he said.
The increase veterans would receive in 2014 has not been calculated, but the Congressional Budget Office has predicted it will likely be about 2 percent.
The dollar amounts paid to Burlington County disabled veterans can vary greatly, but county officials have said most received about $1,100 in 2012. This year's 1.7 percent increase amounted to an extra $19 for those veterans.