- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 10, 2003

Veterans groups are calling a proposed provision to the 2004 defense authorization bill “outrageous and shameful” because it would limit benefits for disabilities sustained during military service in exchange for providing better pensions for disabled veterans.

At issue is a plan proposed by House Republicans that would deny disability compensation and health care to those who sustain injuries while in the service that are not related directly to performance of their official duties. The bill is in conference.

The proposed change was designed to cut costs so veterans could receive both disability and retirement benefits. Currently, military retirees who serve at least 20 years forfeit a dollar of their pension for each dollar of disability pay they receive.

The Republican proposal would grant both full disability and retirement benefits to the veterans now penalized, if they are 50 percent or more disabled.

For years, veterans organizations have demanded that the 19th-century law that limits the retirement income of disabled veterans be changed, but they want nothing to do with a provision under consideration that would limit the “concurrent benefit” to veterans whose injuries are not a “direct result of the performance of duty.”

“We want veterans to receive both disability pay and retirement benefits without offset. But this is an unacceptable trade-off,” said Steve Thomas, spokesman for the American Legion, the nation’s largest veterans group with nearly 2.8 million members.

Veterans of Foreign Wars also has attacked the plan put forth by the Republicans in conference.

Yesterday, five other veterans groups — AmVets, Disabled Veterans of America, Military Order of the Purple Heart, Paralyzed Veterans of America, and Vietnam Veterans of America — issued a joint statement condemning the proposal to narrow the definition of “service-connected” injuries.

The nation’s veterans and military service organizations are “adamantly opposed to any change that would redefine service-connected disability or restrict the circumstances under which service-connection may be established,” the groups said.

Rick Weidman, spokesman for VVA, called the proposal “reprehensible” and warned that it could make it much more difficult for people harmed by chemical or biological agents to qualify for disability.

Mr. Weidman said leaders of top veterans groups converged on Capitol Hill yesterday to express their concerns.

Some Republicans, including President Bush, have said the cost of dual benefits is too high. Pentagon officials have long opposed making full dual benefits available.

The Department of Veterans Affairs yesterday declined to comment on the provision because it has not been settled.

Asked yesterday if the plan is still under consideration, Harald Stavenash, spokesman for the House Armed Services Committee, said, “Everything is still under consideration.” He predicted a final compromise bill will not be completed before next week.

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