WASHINGTON -- Months after President Donald Trump's administration backed off a proposal to slash benefits for the country's most disabled veterans, organizations such as the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars were still receiving calls and emails from panicked vets.
That's why the organizations were relieved Thursday, when VA Secretary David Shulkin put the promise in writing. Shulkin sent a letter to veterans groups stating the VA "does not support a termination" of the Individual Unemployability benefit program, which is available to veterans who are unable to secure a job because of a disability.
"Vets should not be panicking, and this is the most vulnerable group of vets out there," said Joe Chenelly, executive director of AMVETS. "We don't want them worrying about the potential of losing their benefits."
A proposed cut to the program was part of Trump's fiscal 2018 budget proposal released in May, and it immediately garnered protest from individual veterans and major veterans organizations.
The Individual Unemployability benefit allows disabled veterans to receive the highest compensation rate for their service-connected disability. The proposal called for removing veterans from the benefit program once they reach the minimum age for Social Security, if they are eligible for Social Security payments. It was estimated approximately 225,000 veterans aged 60 or older would lose their benefits. The change was projected to save $3.2 billion in fiscal 2018.
The veterans organizations called the proposal cruel, and the American Legion described it as "stealth privatization" because the savings was intended to pay for veterans to receive private-sector medical care.
Within weeks after the idea was floated, Shulkin backed off. At a Senate hearing in June, he said he was "not going to support policies that hurt veterans."
"As I began to listen to veterans and their concerns ... it became clear that this would be hurting some veterans and a takeaway from veterans who can't afford to have those benefits taken away," he said at the time.
But veterans again became panicked recently when the VA distributed a vague letter about the proposed cut, said Chenelly, who contacted Shulkin's office asking for a clearer statement.
Shulkin's letter should be a reassurance for worried vets, Chenelly said. In it, Shulkin states he'll work with veterans organizations about any potential changes to the program in the future.
"We sent it out and received a ton of great emails back," Chenelly said. "People are grateful to finally see Shulkin on the record, in writing, saying he does not support this cut. This was something important for vets to be reassured, and we don't want them to feel someone is coming after them."