In late May, the White House released the president’s budget proposal for the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) for fiscal year 2018 and advance appropriations for fiscal year 2019. DAV and other veteran service organizations immediately took notice of the proposal to extend the VA Choice Program using funds marked for other veteran benefits.
Specifically, to pay for the Choice Program, VA would terminate Individual Unemployability ratings provided to veterans who are unable to work as a result of their serviced connected disability, when the veteran reaches the minimum retirement age for Social Security purposes (age 62), and upon enactment of the proposal if the veteran is already in receipt of Social Security retirement benefits.
“The budget proposes to fully offset the cost of continuing [the Veterans Choice] program through targeted programmatic changes to mandatory benefits programs to better align them with programmatic intents,” reads the proposal in the budget plan.
“The elimination of these benefits would affect not only the veteran’s family income, but other critical ancillary benefits such as dental coverage, Survivors’ and Dependents’ Educational Assistance, the Civilian Health and Medical Program of the VA (CHAMPVA), commissary and exchange privileges and the value of Social Security benefits,” said Washington Headquarters Executive Director Garry Augustine. “Veterans are increasingly working well past the age of 62, making this cutoff date for benefits extremely unfair. Additionally, this will impact access to some state benefits such as property tax exemptions for totally disabled veteran homeowners, free vehicle registration and free access to state parks.”
DAV submitted testimony to the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee for a budget hearing the day following the release of the President’s budget plan, and expressed its strong opposition to the proposal. On June 14, DAV Assistant National Legislative Director LeRoy Acosta testified before the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs on behalf of the Independent Budget—a coalition of veterans organizations consisting of DAV, Veterans of Foreign Wars and Paralyzed Veterans of America—regarding our recommendations for VA benefits programs for fiscal year 2018, and again expressed opposition to the proposed elimination in individual unemployability benefits.
“This proposal is especially detrimental to the well-being of ill and injured veterans and their families because it forces a totally disabled veteran to take their Social Security benefits at the minimum age of 62, when the benefit is a small fraction of what he or she would receive at normal retirement age or at age 70,” testified Acosta. “The benefits received from the VA, or based on military retirement pay and other federal programs have differing eligibility criteria as compared with the earned payments of Social Security.”
After hearing from DAV and other veterans service organizations, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs David Shulkin acknowledged that this proposal would be harmful to disabled veterans and that he would like to find another way to fund the Choice Program without cutting veterans individual unemployability benefits. Secretary Shulkin’s announcement is encouraging, but we must continue the fight as the budget process moves forward.
Already, DAV members and supporters have sent 24,000 emails to members of Congress through the DAV Commander’s Action Network, advising them of our strong opposition to the proposal.
“Ensuring service disabled veterans retain their individual unemployability benefits is a key priority for DAV, and the legislative staff in Washington will take every opportunity to ensure your concerns are heard” said DAV National Legislative Director Joy Ilem. “Please keep in mind this is only a proposal and the start of the budget process, but it is critical we act now and protect our benefits by educating our elected officials about the negative impact this proposal would have on service-disabled veterans and their families. Please send a message to your elected officials to express your views on this important issue.”