Vets: Benefits Bill Better but Not Good Enough

Ron Anderson spent 23 years as a Navy paratrooper before retiring with foot injuries in 1990, but he refuses to apply for disability benefits — doing so would cost him a chunk of his $1,500 monthly retirement check.

Anderson is one of 2.4 million veterans who cannot get tax-exempt disability benefits without offsetting their monthly retirement, dollar for dollar, under a century-old law known as "concurrent receipt."

"It's not a scam. We've earned it," said Anderson, 53. "No one can live on retirement. Retirement is a misnomer. My retirement is a pittance compared to my living expenses. It doesn't pay for my heat, my electricity."

A bill that would have lifted the ban on concurrent receipt passed — but was so watered-down that Anderson called it a "major-league disappointment."

Now, even that could be taken away, under a provision "slipped in" to a pending appropriations bill that would bar new military retirees from applying for disability under even the weakened version of the concurrent receipt measure.

Michael Jordan, deputy of government relations for the Retired Officers Association, said the language in the Veterans Administration/Housing and Urban Development appropriations bill was designed to help cover the cost of concurrent receipt, estimated at $2 billion to $9 billion over the next 10 years. But what it does is put "a big crunch" on concurrent receipt, he said.

"How could you do such a stupid thing?" Jordan asked. "Any new retiree who becomes injured can't collect disability."

Even if they could, it would not be the full concurrent receipt people like Anderson were expecting.

The 2003 Defense Authorization Bill signed this month by President Bush included a "special compensation package" for military retirees — because the president refused to sign anything called concurrent receipt, said Bob Washington, a spokesman for the Fleet Reserve Association.

The law limits concurrent receipt to those with at least 20 years of service and at least a 60-percent disability stemming from hazardous duty, armed conflict, military equipment or participation in a war simulation. Any Purple Heart recipient also qualifies with a minimum 10-percent disability, if the disability is directly connected to their award.

"Everybody expected much more. I won't be getting anything, not in my lifetime," Anderson said.

He said he likely would not qualify because his foot injury only provides him with a 30- to 40-percent disability and his diabetes was detected after completing his duty.

Jordan called the compromise "disappointing," especially after overwhelming support from Congress.

"It falls short of what we wanted, what Congress included in their mark-ups, what 90 percent of the legislators promised," Jordan said. "But, I'm happy they established a beachhead."

Veterans can begin applying for concurrent receipt in June.

The Department of Veterans Affairs said 700,000 retirees receive some disability and that about 180,000 of those have 60-percent disability or higher.

They could not predict how many retirees might be helped by the new provision, but the Office of Management and Budget and the Congressional Budget Office have put the number at 35,000 to 40,000 veterans.

Veterans Affairs spokeswoman Terry Jemison said concurrent receipt applications would be evaluated on a "case-by-case basis" and that compensation would only go to those who incurred a disability or had pre-existing injury aggravated in the service.

Before veterans can apply for the new benefit, however, Congress is likely to vote on a VA/HUD bill that has language that could further restrict the new benefit.

Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., a senior Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, is "hopeful that the contrasting provision in the VA/HUD bill will be resolved in January," said his spokeswoman, Stacey Farnen.

While Hoyer is "very supportive" of concurrent receipt, he voted for the limiting language in the VA/HUD bill, which was languishing in the House Appropriations Committee.

"I don't think Congressman Hoyer saw the provision and said, 'Hey I support that,'" Farnen said.

Appropriations bills are extremely long and several Hill sources said it is possible that supporters of concurrent receipt did not know the provision was in the bill when they signed off on it.

Sen. John Warner, R-Va., the original sponsor of the bill, has already promised to hold hearings on concurrent receipt next year, calling the issue a "longstanding problem," spokeswoman Meredith Moseley said.

"This issue needed to be addressed," Moseley said. "It's a huge, huge step in the right direction."

But it is not a big enough step, Anderson said. With only 20 percent of congressmen having served in the military, the needs of veterans are overlooked, he said, which is why the Defense Authorization Bill will only help a "minuscule portion of retired veterans."

Even fewer will be helped unless the limiting language in the VA/HUD bill is removed, he said.

"To them, it's just dollars and cents. They didn't have to serve," Anderson said. "To them it's just a numbers crunch. There is no honor in a budget. There is no honor in no service. They abandoned us."