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It can be a frustrating time of year for 54,000 military widows who see their Survivor Benefit Plan (SBP) payments wiped out or reduced by the monthly amount they receive in Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC) from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

As it has done routinely in recent years, the Senate on Tuesday again approved, by voice vote, an amendment from Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) to end this unpopular SBP-DIC offset.

But as in years past, the Senate hasn’t set aside money to pay full SBP to these surviving spouses. The Congressional Budget Office estimates the cost at $6.6 billion over the next 10 years.

Lawmakers say they are handcuffed by a “pay-as-you-go” budget law that requires any new federal entitlements be paid for with a matching reduction in other “mandatory spending” or entitlement program.

So, barring a legislative miracle, Nelson’s amendment will be tossed out again when House-Senate conferees meet later this year to iron out differences in separate versions of the fiscal 2010 defense authorization bill.

The Military Coalition, a consortium of 34 military associations and veterans’ service organizations, made eliminating the SBP-DIC offset a legislative priority this year. But Steve Strobridge, co-chair of the coalition, said the armed services committees have a tough time finding spending offsets within the defense budget to raise SBP payments.

So the coalition intends to press House and Senate leaders hard in the coming months either to find offsets elsewhere in the federal budget or to declare the predicament of these widows worthy of an emergency exemption from the “pay-as-you-go” budget rule.

“We always get the same arguments that ‘We can’t afford to do it’ or ‘We can’t find the mandatory spending offsets’ [given] other pressing needs that are a lot more money, from [economic] stimulus packages to the [new] GI Bill last year. Now they’re talking about fixing the Medicare payment issue by declaring it an emergency and waiving the [pay-as-you-go] rule. That’s $250 billion to $300 billion,” Strobridge said. “Well, if we can do it for hundreds of billions of dollars in other programs, then we just don’t buy that we can’t do the same thing for $6 billion for military widows.”

That’s the argument congressional leaders will hear.

“It’s had to tell how optimistic to be,” said Strobridge, given the legislative history on this issue. But he noted that Democratic leaders unveiled a series of legislative goals in 2005 for service members, veterans and their families called the new “GI Bill of Rights for the 21st Century.”

Those goals ranged from improving veterans’ health care and lifting the ban on concurrent receipt of both retired pay and VA disability compensation, to modernizing the GI Bill education benefit and ending the SBP-DIC offset, referred to then as the “Military Families Tax.”

“They have come through on a lot of the other things,” Strobridge said, including a big increase in VA funding, progress on concurrent receipt and narrowing the military’s pay gap with the private sector. But relief from the SPB-DIC offset is “one area where the action hasn’t met the rhetoric.”

Congress has recognized that the SBP-DIC offset is unjust, Strobridge said, but has provided only “paltry sums” to affected surviving spouses.

Those impacted by the offset began receiving a Special Survivor Indemnity Allowance (SSIA) of $50 a month last October. It was to increase in October each year by $10 per month until it reached $100 by 2013. But the payment would expire by October 2014.

Earlier this year Congress saw a chance to raise and extend the SSIA using money saved on a non-defense program. So a provision added to the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, which President Obama signed into law June 22, will raise the SSIA to $95 a month this October. It will climb to $105 the next year, to $120 in October 2011, to $130 in 2012, and to $150 in 2013. SSIA is to be raised to $200 a month by October 2014, to $275 by October 2015 and to $310 by October 2016. But that still would be only about a quarter of what affected widows can lose to the DIC offset.

Dan McLaughlin, a staffer for Senator Nelson, said the lawmaker realizes his amendment to end SPB-DIC offset hasn’t survived a conference committee with the House for perhaps four straight years. But because the effort is “for veterans’ families,” he said, Nelson “happens to believe you keep on trying, no matter how long it takes.”

TRICARE FOR LIFE – Last week’s column on selection of new support contractors for North and South TRICARE Regions left many readers wondering how TRICARE for Life (TLF) benefits for Medicare-eligible beneficiaries will be impacted, if at all. I should have explained they won’t.

Claims processing for TFL is covered separately, and not included in the new contracts. Wisconsin Physicians Service remains the contractor for TFL. Services to TFL beneficiaries will not change, say TRICARE officials.

NATIONAL HEALTH REFORM – At the urging of the president, Congress is moving to overhaul the nation’s health care system, to make it more affordable and accessible to all Americans and to reduce growth in health care spending. The effort has left military and veterans’ communities asking if these changes might impact their service-earned health benefits.

Military associations have been assured by key Senate and House committees working on the legislation that any changes under study would not affect health programs for military beneficiaries and veterans.

But Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) isn’t so sure. His amendment to HR 3200, America's Affordable Health Choices Act of 2009, makes clear that the bill’s broad definition of “employment-based health plans,” with its mandates and penalties, will not apply to TRICARE.

To comment, e-mail, write to Military Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, VA, 20120-1111 or visit:

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