Report says army survivor benefit plan ‘compares well’, annoying widows still hit by compensation

(Rito Smith / US Air Force)

Retired military personnel, their spouses, and perhaps 80 percent of the 320,000 survivors already able to collect benefits under the military survivor benefit plan, can take comfort in a recent report on the program. think tank RAND Corp.

The 175-page report “An Evaluation of the Military Survivor Benefit Plan” was ordered by Congress and concludes that the SBP is “well structured to provide survivor benefits” and that the benefits “compare well with those of the plans. public and private ”.

RAND’s findings will not generate the same enthusiasm from the 64,000 surviving spouses who continue to have their SBP cut or terminated, as they are also eligible for Dependency Compensation and Allowance (DIC) from the Department of Veterans Affairs. because of the death of their military or retiree.

Survivors become eligible for tax-free DIC – triggering SBP-DIC compensation – if their military spouse died while on active duty, on active duty for training, or during inactive duty training; or died as a retiree from a service issue; or died after being rated 100 percent disabled by the VA for at least 10 years.

Edith G. Smith, a citizen activist for deceased military retirees and their survivors, has been fighting for Congress to end SBP-DIC compensation since 1999, a year after the death of her husband, Vincent, Lieutenant Colonel of the Corps of the Marines. Powerful military associations have joined the fight since then and there have been partial victories for the affected survivors, most of whom are widows.

The RAND report is a comprehensive overview of SBP and thus describes how SBP interacts with other programs, including DIC. He also evokes the partial solution to the offset that Congress has approved, so far, without judging in its report either the fairness of the offset or the prospects of a Congress approving more changes.

This current partial solution is a Special Monthly Survivor’s Compensation Allowance (SSIA) that returns affected survivors about one-third, on average, of the value of lost SBP coverage. Indeed, the Department of Defense estimates that about 3,000 of the 64,000 affected survivors – those who are older and have seen sponsors opt for minimal SBP coverage – have been cured by the SSIA.

Last year, Congress made the expiring SSIA a permanent benefit and voted to adjust the payment by $ 310 per month each year, starting next year, using the same percentage of the cost adjustment. life (COLA) applied to military retirement and SBP. The concern of some survivor advocates is that the permanent SSIA will satisfy congressional leaders, and perhaps too many widows, leaving the complete repeal of compensation forever out of reach.

“We won’t let them think that,” Smith insisted, arguing how unfair it is that many military retirees charged with advising decision-makers in Congress and the Pentagon on the treatment of military widows have themselves been granted a license. legislative relaxation of the laws on double compensation and the lifting of prohibitions. on the simultaneous receipt of both military retirement pay and VA disability pay over the past two decades.

Kelly Hruska, who monitors survivor issues for the National Military Family Association and the Military Coalition, a coordinating group of military associations and veterans organizations, said “we had the problem early in the year. year with some members of Congress saying SBP-DIC was resolved.

When the coalition continued to list ending SBP-DIC compensation as a legislative priority, Hruska said: “I have had several [Capitol Hill] the staff say to me ‘Why do you have this over there? This is a solved problem.

“I said, ‘The lag has not been eliminated. Why do you think this is the case? “

“Either way, they reported the ISSA,” Hruska recalls.

Dan Merry, vice president of government relations for the Association of Military Officers of America and coalition co-chair, said ending the lag remains one of MOAA’s top priorities as most widows don’t have not been cured.

“However, across the military service community more needs to be done to educate eligible retired members and their spouses” so that they too can see their SBP benefit reduced or eliminated one day, said said Merry.

Congressional leaders and advocacy groups agree the barricade to ending compensation is finding budget funds to cover costs.

Smith is angry that, in his opinion, Congress has a funding stream, tied to tighter enforcement of tobacco taxes, to at least make the SSIA permanent. Somehow those dollars were embezzled, she said, so the House Armed Services Committee had to fund the sustainability of the SSIA by increasing co-payments on drug prescriptions. military beneficiaries completed off base or by correspondence.

Members of Congress, she argues, would have found a way to avoid a 30 percent cut in their own survivor benefits without increasing their own health care costs.

Still, Smith is encouraged by what she sees as a growing commitment from some leaders, including Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, to continue pushing to end the lag.

Thornberry cited it as a priority in a March “opinions and estimates” letter to Rep. Steve Womack, R-Ark., Chairman of the House budget committee. The cost of the total repeal is estimated by the Congressional Budget Office at $ 8 billion over 10 years.

“As you know,” Thornberry told Womack, “we have no flexibility to generate this amount of savings under the mandatory allocation of funds for National Defense, so we would like to work with you to increase the levels of direct spending that the committee must resolve. this problem. “

Merry noted that the number of co-sponsors of legislation to end SBP-DIC compensation, called the Military Surviving Spouses Equity Act, has increased by 48 in the House alone since the SSIA became permanent. Smith also noted that the co-sponsors of this bill, HR 846, now include the chairs and ranks of the House Budget and Ways and Means committees, another positive sign.

Representative Mike Coffman, R-Colo., Chairman of the House Armed Services subcommittee on personnel, is not a co-sponsor. He did not explain why this week but, in a written statement, Coffman answered further questions on this matter.

Congress, he said, must “find a way to take care of these survivors by completely eliminating the penalty that reduces their benefits.” With the SSIA, he added, the committee “has solved part of the problem, but it will take all of Congress to enact a complete repeal, which I would support.”

This reflects an emerging consensus among widow advocates that more pressure needs to be put on top Congressional leaders to relax a pay-as-you-go budget law specifically to address compensation. Congress has already done so on other issues it deemed critical, including funding for the post 9/11 GI bill.

“It’s criminal in my opinion,” Hruska said. “This is a benefit the military has paid for, either through monthly bonuses or, in the case of those who died on active duty, with their lifetime. If a company did this, it would link [its executives] in the square and members of Congress would be the first to line up to throw stones.

Some survivor advocates want Congress to ask RAND to conduct a new study on SBP, this time focusing on the unique nature of DIC compensation, which Senator Bill Nelson, D-Fla., An original co-sponsor of the bill to end the compensation, says is simply unfair.

Nelson has often noted that earlier in his career he was the Insurance Commissioner for the State of Florida, but knew “no annuities purchased” as SBP “who would withhold payment based on receipt of payment. different “.

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