Vet Group Demands White House, VA Reject Benefits Cuts for Disabled, Unemployed Vets

A disabled veteran takes in the quotes and pictures on glass panels at the new American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial, which was dedicated in Washington on Oct. 5, 2014.  (C.J. LIN/STARS AND STRIPES)
A disabled veteran takes in the quotes and pictures on glass panels at the new American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial, which was dedicated in Washington on Oct. 5, 2014. (C.J. LIN/STARS AND STRIPES)

WASHINGTON -- A cost-saving proposal that sparked backlash from veterans in 2017 has resurfaced in a new Congressional Budget Office report as an option to help reduce the federal budget deficit.

The report suggests removing approximately 235,000 disabled veterans from a Department of Veterans Affairs program called Individual Unemployability in 2020, projecting it could save $47.6 billion in the next 10 years. Veterans removed from the program would see their monthly incomes decrease by an average of $1,300, according to CBO estimates.

One veterans group, AMVETS, is urging the White House and the VA to publicly disavow the proposal before it creates a groundswell of anger within the veteran community.

"We want the White House to immediately make a statement saying this recommendation is out of line and will not be considered," said Joe Chenelly, director of AMVETS. "We understand that the White House is looking to trim costs, but this cannot be an option in that."

The program applies to veterans who have disability ratings through the VA of between 60 percent and 100 percent and are unable to secure jobs because of their disabilities. It allows them to receive the highest compensation rate.

The CBO suggested removing veterans from Individual Unemployability once they reach age 67, claiming those veterans would be eligible for Social Security by that time.

The cut was one of 121 cost-saving proposals included in the CBO report, titled "Options for Reducing the Deficit: 2019 to 2028." The CBO periodically compiles the list of policy options to help inform lawmakers.

The CBO's inclusion of the cut to Individual Unemployability in its report doesn't mean the White House or Congress will consider the proposal. However, now that it's public, it's likely to trigger concern among veterans who would face substantial financial consequences if the idea ever became law, Chenelly said.

AMVETS and other veterans' groups said they heard from thousands of veterans in 2017 when the same cost-saving measure was included in President Donald Trump's 2018 budget.

Then-VA Secretary David Shulkin quickly backed off the proposal, but concerns have lingered.

"We received hundreds of phone calls from veterans and emails and social media posts telling us how devastating this would be and how much anxiety and worry it was causing -- and I'm talking about at dangerous levels," Chenelly said. "We're really worried since this became public again that the worry will come back. The White House can save these vets a whole lot of angst by being very clear and immediate in saying this is something we're not going to ever consider again."

The White House and the VA did not immediately respond to requests for comment Monday.

Released Thursday, the CBO report comes as the White House prepares its budget recommendations for fiscal year 2020. The president's budget is sent to Congress every February.

In its report, the CBO offered an alternative option to allow veterans already enrolled in the Individual Unemployability program to keep their benefit while applying the age cutoff to veterans who enroll after December 2019. The CBO estimated that option would save $6.7 billion in the next 10 years.

Cuts to other VA benefits also were included in the report. One option would stop disability compensation for seven medical conditions: arteriosclerotic heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, Crohn's disease, hemorrhoids, multiple sclerosis, osteoarthritis and uterine fibroids.

Another option would reduce veterans' disability compensation by 30 percent once they reach age 67. The CBO also suggested ending VA payments to veterans with disability ratings of 30 percent or lower.

In an October meeting, Trump requested each Cabinet secretary present ideas to cut costs, citing an increase in spending in his first two years as president. He told them to "get rid of the fat" and suggested the cuts could be as much as 5 percent of each department's budget.

Despite that, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said in November that he believed next year's budget could be bigger than the last one. Congress appropriated more than $200 billion for the VA in fiscal 2019 -- another in a series of budget increases during the past decade.

"In the last presidential campaign, the president committed with everything he had to making sure the Department of Veterans Affairs was the most robust it's ever been," Wilkie said at the time. "I am convinced that the budget that gets through both chambers will replace this last budget as the largest in our history."

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