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Op-Ed: The IU Benefit Should Not Be Offered Up To Cover Veterans’ Choice Program

The American flag. (U.S. Department of State/Flickr)
June 08, 2017

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Included in President Trump’s budget released on May 23, the requirement for offsetting cuts to pay for the Veterans’ Choice Program was surprisingly revealed.

Before discussing the “offsets” offered up, we must remember that the bill on the Veterans’ Choice Program is not a benefit requested by the Veterans; it is a bill which was suggested, in part, by the President of the United States and previously authorized by the Department of Veterans’ Affairs and the Congress.

Three offsets were mentioned.  First, the requirement to again “round-down” Cost of Living Adjustments (COLA), which would reportedly cost Veterans approximately $12 annually and would save approximately $20M (million) in Fiscal Year 2018.

Second, capping Post 9/11 G.I. Bill benefits for Flight Training to $21,000 per year per student.

Considering the extreme importance of the Individual Unemployability benefit to the affected Veterans, two of these proposed offsets might be acceptable to most Veterans.

However, the third offset is almost too ludicrous to consider.

The Veterans’ Service Organizations (VSOs) –  American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Paralyzed Veterans of America, Disabled American Veterans, Military Order of the Purple Heart and Vietnam Veterans  of America welcomed (in general) the budget increases for the Department of Defense and Veterans’ Affairs.

However, these VSOs all vehemently opposed the elimination of the Individual Unemployability (IU) benefit when the affected Veterans reached the Social Security age of 62.

How can the VA possibly agree to lower the earnings of Veterans rated 60, 70, 80 and 90 percent, knowing that these Veterans are physically unable to seek any employment (let alone gainful employment)?

The “sense of the Congress” in 2004 was that, “those Veterans rated by the VA as 50 percent disabled or higher are to be considered our most severely disabled Veterans.”  

All of a sudden, the VA is considering to take away a benefit from our most severely disabled Veterans in order to fund another sorely needed benefit.  Why should our severely disabled Veterans be forced to give up what can be considered “life-saving income” to pay for the Veterans’ Choice benefit, which some of them may not even be eligible to use? Why?

For more than a century, disabled Veterans subsidized their own disability compensation. It wasn’t until 2004 that disabled retirees were permitted to receive disability compensation and retirement pay, concurrently.

Prior to 2004, the amount that this group of Veterans received as disability compensation was deducted from their retirement pay.  In 2004, Congress passed the law that permitted Veterans rated 50 percent or higher by the VA to receive both benefits, concurrently.

Now, Secretary Shulkin has said that the VA is “sensitive to the Issue” on Individual Unemployability (IU), but the VA must find savings.  

Those Veterans “rated 100 percent disabled” are permitted to earn additional income;  those rated  100 percent IU are not permitted that luxury.

Let’s be realistic  –  funding the Veterans’ Choice Program is not solely the responsibility of the VA; it is the responsibility of the Nation, making it a Federal responsibility.  

Why not eliminate a totally unfair law and use that money to help fund the Choice Program? Eliminating the Beneficiary Travel Reimbursement Program for VA patients (or better yet, for the entire Armed Forces) would free-up billions of  dollars annually. Providing adequate compensation for our most severely disabled Veterans certainly outweighs the individual need for a few dollars reimbursement for travel expenses.

Why not close the borders and eliminate the financial support of more immigrants? Many of these immigrants have been discovered to be jihadist terrorists and many of them will increase the number of illegal immigrants receiving benefits that they should not be receiving and are openly abusing. The immigration program must be improved before we let more immigrants into our country.

Why not consider fixing the Welfare System and stop the flow of wasted funds paid to the many abusers of that system?

As one of the many severely disabled Veterans (84 years of age) who would be affected by the discontinuance of the IU benefit, I, too, must voice my vehement opposition.  

From 1973 until 1980, I had to waive the amount of my disability compensation from my retirement pay. As a result of an Appeal decided in my favor, in 1980 the VA went on record to state that my disability was “permanent and total” and that because my disability prevented me from seeking gainful employment, I was granted the IU benefit; my disability rating remained at 60 percent, but I was considered eligible to receive compensation at the 100 percent disability rate. Accepting VA disability compensation at the 100 percent rate meant waiving my entire retirement pay in order to receive it!

I was deprived of my retirement pay for more than 25 years.  Since 2004, I have been receiving my retirement pay and my VA Disability Compensation, concurrently. I have been receiving VA compensation at the 100 percent rate since 1980, when my disability was “tagged” as permanent and total. If this offset takes away my IU benefit, my income will be reduced by almost $2,000 per month (which I can ill-afford)!  

Before “concurrent receipt” was authorized, I managed to survive on beans, hamburgers and hot dogs.  The IU benefit enabled me to live a little more comfortably. My present income made it possible for me to purchase a comfortable home; the IU benefit just happens to be enough to make the mortgage payments. It would seem blatantly unfair if I should lose my home because of yet another unfair law affecting disabled Veterans.

As predicted by my doctors, my condition has not improved over the years, but it has worsened.

Prior to my retirement from the Navy, I underwent two tediously difficult surgeries to perform laminectomy and fusion at the L4, L5 and S1 levels of my spine. Subsequent to my retirement, I underwent additional laminectomy and fusion surgery at the C4, C5 and C6 levels. The surgeries performed on my spine have resulted in considerable restriction of motion and has made it impossible for me to sleep either on my stomach or my back.  My so-called VA pain level has remained at level 7 or higher (out of 10) since 1973. 

Depriving me of my IU benefit will force me to officially appeal my 60 percent rating upgrading it to 100 percent; taking into account the additional surgery and the overall worsening of my disability.  Since I have been receiving VA compensation at the 100 percent level, I heretofore have not seen the necessity to appeal the 60 percent award for an upgrade.

The Individual Unemployability benefit should not be offered-up as an offset to fund the Veterans’ Choice Program.

Brooks Outland is a Korean and Vietnam war veteran. He volunteered to serve in Vietnam because he was keen to help the people of South Vietnam keep their freedom and their country from communist takeover by the North. After retiring, Brooks and his wife spent eight years volunteering aboard his old battleship, the USS Missouri (BB-63), before returning to the mainland in Arkansas in 2015.