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WASHINGTON — Just weeks after Congress created a new injury insurance program for troops, members of a House subcommittee on Thursday voiced support for expanding the number of servicemembers covered by the plan and standardizing the payout.

But defense officials told the House Veterans Affairs Committee’s disability subcommittee that they are reluctant to change the new insurance program, citing a need for flexibility and the higher payouts available.

In May, Congress approved the injury insurance as part of the $80.7 billion supplemental budget to fund operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The program, scheduled to start by December, is designed to be a supplement to existing military benefits, similar to the Servicemembers’ Group Life Insurance program.

In it, servicemembers would pay about $1 a month and receive between $25,000 and $100,000 for injuries such as loss of a limb or an eye, depending on the severity of the handicap (see box).

But as written, the legislation lists only a handful of specific injuries and covers only wounds from combat zones. Several subcommittee members worried that troops affected by things such as training accidents and heart attacks brought on by a firefight might not qualify.

“If the intention is to compensate veterans and their families for injury-related expenses, why are the benefits limited to only certain traumatic injuries?” asked Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev.

An alternate proposal introduced in April by Rep. Rick Renzi, R-Ariz., would provide a $50,000 payout to any servicemember severely injured while on active duty. Renzi said he’s not in favor of a “laundry list” approach to deciding how much each injury is worth.

But Steve Jones, deputy assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, said his office would not support reducing the payout maximums from $100,000, since expenses related to a severe wound may require the extra money.

And Thomas Lastowka, director of the Veterans Affairs Department’s insurance center, dismissed concerns that the new insurance program as written is too narrow.

“We believe this gives the VA the authority to define severe injuries based on individual cases,” he said.

John Bollinger, deputy executive director of the Paralyzed Veterans of America, said his group prefers neither plan.

“We don’t think, from a philosophical standpoint, that an individual on active duty should have to pay even a small premium for insurance for an injury that occurs on active duty,” he said. “If soldiers are going bankrupt because of their injuries, then I say shame on all of us.”

Supplemental bill details

The supplemental budget signed May 11 by President Bush prescribed injuries that would be covered under a Servicemembers’ Group Life Insurance rider that offered wounded servicemembers payments of $25,000 to $100,000 for the severity of their injuries. Two lawmakers said Thursday that the list is too specific, and want a flat payment of $50,000 for anyone wounded or injured. This is the language of the supplemental bill:

(b)(1) A member who is issued a traumatic injury protection rider under subsection (a) is insured against such traumatic injuries, as prescribed by the Secretary, in collaboration with the Secretary of Defense, including, but not limited to —

total and permanent loss of sight;loss of a hand or foot by severance at or above the wrist or ankle;total and permanent loss of speech;total and permanent loss of hearing in both ears;loss of thumb and index finger of the same hand by severance at or above the metacarpophalangeal joints;quadriplegia, paraplegia, or hemiplegia;burns greater than second degree, covering 30 percent of the body or 30 percent of the face; andcoma or the inability to carry out the activities of daily living resulting from traumatic injury to the brain(d) Payments under this section for losses described in subsection (b)(1) shall be —

made in accordance with a schedule prescribed by the Secretary, in collaboration with the Secretary of Defense;based on the severity of the covered condition; andin an amount that is equal to not less than $25,000 and not more than $100,000.Source: HR 1268

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