Veterans Seek to Boost Benefits for Combat-Injured Retirees (1)

(Updates to identify lawyer pressing for change in legislation in 13th paragraph)

Veterans groups want the annual defense authorization bill to bolster pay benefits for those who retire with combat-injuries before fulfilling 20-years of military service.

Gus Bilirakis (R-Fla.), senior member of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, has introduced “The Major Richard Star Act” (H.R. 5995), designed to expand the eligibility for combat-injured veterans to receive both disability compensation and retired pay. Supporters want to roll it into the defense policy legislation.

Military retirees with 20 or more years of service qualify for retirement pay. They may also qualify for disability compensation for any injuries caused or aggravated by their military service.

Those retirees who receive a disability rating of 40% or less lose their Defense Department retirement pay, or an offset, if they also receive disability from the Veterans Affairs Department, often leading to smaller payouts.

Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg
Pedestrians walk past the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) headquarters in Washington.

“Military and Veterans Service Organizations have long argued that retired pay and VA service-connected disability compensation are fundamentally different benefits, granted for different reasons,” several organizations, including Veterans of Foreign Wars and the Wounded Warrior Project, wrote to Bilirakis on Feb. 28.

Denying Benefits an ‘Injustice’

“Military retired pay is an earned benefit for vested years of service. Service-connected disability compensation is for injury. To deny retired pay because of a disability is an injustice,” they wrote in the letter obtained by Bloomberg Government.

The other organizations signing on are: Military Officers Association of America, Fleet Reserve Association, the Enlisted Association, and the National Military Family Association.

Before 2004, retirees couldn’t receive both retirement pay and disability pay because it was calculated as a duplication of benefits. Congress changed the law to allow military retirees who are rated at least 50 percent disabled to receive both their full benefits.

Remaining to be approved are those who are 40% disabled and below, and those who were unable to complete 20 years of service due to service-connected injuries or illness.

There are approximately 210,000 of these veterans, known as Chapter 61 retirees. Some retirees who suffered from injuries incurred in combat are eligible for Combat Related Special Compensation, which mitigates to varying degrees some loss in pay due to the offset.

“The veterans in most need are those with combat injuries and less than 20 years of service,” the organizations wrote to Bilirakis. “The Major Richard Star Act would provide total offset relief.”

The bill would change compensation for about 42,000 veterans, according to Kyle Kalman, the associate director for legislative service at the VFW. It would cost no more than $2 billion over 10 years, and the money would come out of the Military Retirement Trust Fund, he said in a telephone interview.

Bilirakis will publicly present his bill on Tuesday together with Richard Star, the legislation’s namesake. Star, an Army engineer, has a Bronze Star Medal, the Army Commendation Medal with three oak leaf clusters, and the Good Conduct Medal among several other awards. He also is suffering from stage 4 lung cancer. Star is represented by Natalie Khawam of the Whistleblower Law Firm in Tampa, Fla.

Because it would make changes to Title 10, the House Armed Services Committee has jurisdiction over the measure. The goal is to get 290 co-sponsors, Kalman said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Roxana Tiron in Washington at rtiron@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at phendrie@bgov.com; Robin Meszoly at rmeszoly@bgov.com

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