VA Secretary Dr. David Shulkin's reversal on cutting a major benefit for elderly and disabled vets left the VA with a $3.2 billion budget hole to fill to meet President Donald Trump's demand for an expanded Choice program.
Despite Shulkin's change of course Wednesday, veterans service organizations urged their members to keep pressure on members of Congress to block any attempt to revive the plan in the $186.5 billion proposed budget for the Department of Veterans Affairs, which would have eliminated the Individual Unemployability (IU) benefit once veterans reached Social Security age.
"It shouldn't have been proposed to begin with," Veterans of Foreign Wars National Commander Brian Duffy said of the initial plan to cut the benefit. "Balancing budgets on the backs of veterans is something the VFW will never tolerate."
He called on the 1.7 million members of the VFW "to urge their respective members of Congress to oppose the IU cuts and make certain this proposal does not resurface."
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Under questioning by Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., Shulkin was challenged at a Senate Veterans Affairs Committee hearing Wednesday to defend the proposed IU cut.
Shulkin began by saying that the cut was one of several options the VA was looking at to offset the costs of expanding the Choice program, which allows veterans to get care in the private sector.
However, "as I began to listen to veterans and their concerns," Shulkin said, "it became clear that this would be hurting some veterans" and would amount to "a takeaway from veterans who can't afford to have those benefits taken away."
"I'm really concerned about that," Shulkin said. "This is part of a process. We have to be looking at ways to do things better, but I am not going to support policies that hurt veterans."
Veterans currently eligible for the IU benefit have a 60 to 100 percent disability rating through the VA and are unable to secure a job because of their disability. IU allows them to receive the highest compensation rate.
The budget proposal would have removed veterans from the IU program when they reached the minimum age for Social Security. About 225,000 veterans aged 60 or older could have been affected by the cut -- about 7,000 of them over the age of 80.
The reversal on the IU cuts, which were projected to save about $3.2 billion, left Shulkin looking for other ways to offset the costs of a planned $2.9 billion expansion of the Choice program that he expects to send to Congress before the end of fiscal 2017 on Sept. 30.
After the Senate hearing Wednesday, Shulkin told Stars & Stripes, "The president, as you know, is concerned about the government being too large, so our responsibility is to make sure the programs we have are working well."
However, "The president and I both do not want to be taking away from veterans" in the effort to shrink government and make it more efficient, he said. "So we are going to go back and make sure we can hit the targets but look at alternative ways of doing it."
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.