By Mr. SANDERS:
S. 735. A bill to amend title 38, United States Code, to improve benefits and assistance provided to surviving spouses of veterans under laws administered by the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, and for other purposes; to the Committee on Veterans' Affairs.
Mr. SANDERS. Mr. President, as the Chairman of the Veterans' Affairs Committee, one of my top priorities is to honor the promise that we made, as a nation, to care for veterans and their survivors. The Senate recently passed a resolution, which I was proud to co-sponsor, designating April 5 as ``Gold Star Wives Day,'' in honor of the Gold Star Wives of America, a nonprofit organization that provides services, support, and representation for widows and widowers whose spouses died on active duty in the military or as a result of a service-connected disability. We recently celebrated ``Gold Star Wives Day,'' by recognizing the sacrifices of the families of fallen servicemembers and veterans.
In addition to honoring surviving spouses and families, we must take steps forward to provide the comprehensive care and benefits they need. Without a doubt, a decade of war has had a major impact on our military families. Over 6,600 U.S. servicemembers have died in Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom. They leave behind spouses, who must now face a variety of issues such as financial difficulties, preserving the family home, maintaining the family business, and caring for their children.
Earlier this year, the Veterans' Affairs Committee heard from the Gold Star Wives of America about the significant challenges that survivors continue to face. Among the issues the organization advocated for were improved Dependency and Indemnity Compensation benefits and qualification requirements. These are some of the challenges that this legislation would address.
This legislation would improve existing survivor benefits and establish a new pilot program to help address the grief counseling needs of surviving spouses. It would also expand health care and other supportive services to children who suffer from spina bifida as a result of their parent's exposure to certain herbicide agents during service in Thailand during the Vietnam War. This legislation would make a real and positive impact in the lives of the approximately 350,000 surviving spouses and children, currently receiving benefits, who have lost a loved one as a result of service to this country.
The Survivor Benefits Improvement Act of 2013 would extend the timeframe for increased DIC benefits for surviving spouses with children from 2 years to 5 years. A 2001 evaluation of benefits for survivors of veterans with service-connected disabilities revealed that survivors with dependents perceived an approximate $6,000 annual gap between DIC received and DIC needed. The study also found that the average total household income decreased over $20,000 on average during the transition period after the veteran's death. As a result of this study, it was recommended that the $250 monthly increase in DIC payment be extended from two years to five years for surviving spouses with dependent children. It has now been over a decade since the 2001 report and we still have not provided this increase.
Furthermore, a recent survey from the Department of Veterans Affairs indicated that approximately 44 percent of surviving spouse respondents had incomes below $20,000. It is clear that this legislation is necessary to provide much needed additional support to survivors during the period following a veteran's death, especially for low-income families. We must act to remedy this shortfall immediately.
This legislation would also expand eligibility for DIC to surviving spouses who remarry at or after age 55. The lower remarriage age would ensure that surviving spouses receive benefits at a requirement level comparable to other federal survivor programs. For example, under the Military Survivor Benefit Plan and for federal employees generally, the remarriage age is 55 for retaining benefits.
At present, VA presumes that spina bifida in biological children of certain Vietnam-era and certain Korea service veterans was caused by the veterans' exposure to Agent Orange during military service. As a result, VA provides health care, vocational rehabilitation and employment services, and a monthly monetary allowance to qualifying children. Although Agent Orange was primarily used in Vietnam, it was also used at military installations and other facilities, such as those in Korea and Thailand. Veterans who served in certain occupations at certain bases in Thailand are eligible to receive service-connected disability compensation. Therefore, it is only logical that VA should also be required to provide benefits to the children of veterans with qualifying service in Thailand, who are suffering from spina bifida.
The loss of a loved one is a devastating and life changing event. This legislation would strengthen our dedication to the overall well-being of surviving spouses by providing a pilot program on grief counseling in retreat settings. The program would enable surviving spouses, and dependents in certain instances, to receive the counseling, support, and sense of community necessary to heal from losing a loved one.
We have made a steadfast and unwavering commitment not only to our veterans, but to their surviving spouses and children. This legislation would strengthen, develop, and expand essential programs and benefits for survivors. Veterans and their families, who have both sacrificed so much for this country, deserve these benefits. We must deliver.
Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent that the text of the bill be printed in the Record.
There being no objection, the text of the bill was ordered to be printed in the Record, as follows:
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