Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Fight to end widows benefit offset goes on

By Rick Maze - Staff writer
Posted : Monday Mar 16, 2009 18:15:29 EDT

A bipartisan group of more than 160 lawmakers has promised to increase government benefits for about 57,000 survivors of service members who died while on active duty.

But the lawmakers did not explain where they will find the estimated $480 million that would be needed to cover the cost.

With the Obama administration talking about trying to hold down the costs of government entitlements, and defense officials worried about not having enough money in future budgets for modernizing weapons and other priorities, it is hard to see how the outcome for survivors will be different from what has happened over the past five years when Congress has dangled the promise of better benefits before widows, only to disappoint them in the end.

Edie Smith, a member of Gold Star Wives who has been working for more than 20 years to get the offset eliminated, said money has been the main obstacle, and Pentagon opposition to changing the rules hasn’t helped.

The Military Officers Association of America estimates that 57,000 survivors are hurt by law that reduces Survivor Benefit Plan payments by the Defense Department by any amount received in Dependent Indemnity Compensation from the Veterans Affairs Department. For most, the offset reduces survivor benefits by $1,154 a month.

Congress approved a modest benefit increase for survivors two years ago. A special payment of $50 a month took effect Oct. 1 for those affected by the offset. The $50 payment is set to increase by $10 a year for five years, which means survivors can expect to get $60 per month starting Oct. 1 of this year.

Rep. Solomon Ortiz, D-Texas, a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee, is the chief sponsor of a House bill, HR 775, that would end the offset. He introduced the bill Feb. 17, and it has the support of 102 Democrats and 50 Republicans.

A similar Senate bill, S 535, sponsored by Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has 11 co-sponsors.

Nelson’s proposal has been approved each of the past five years as an amendment to the annual defense authorization bill — last year by a 94-2 vote — but the House has blocked the measure because there is no money to pay for the benefits. The House has stricter rules about paying for proposed legislation than the Senate.

House aides, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said nothing has changed to boost the chances of passage this year of the so-called SBP/DIC legislation. But in a statement released when he reintroduced his bill, Nelson said he hopes a promise made during the election campaign by President Barack Obama to expand veterans benefits might lead to support for his proposal.

Nelson noted that Obama, when he was an Illinois senator, supported his amendment. “I’m hopeful this will be the year we get this fixed,” Nelson said.

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