Senate bill would restore COLA reduction for military retirees

The Senate is poised to consider a massive veterans bill that not only would improve education, health and employment benefits for former troops, it would restore the cost-of-living adjustment reduction for military retirees set by the Bipartisan Budget Act.

The 352-page Comprehensive Veterans Health and Benefits and Military Retirement Pay Restoration bill, or S. 1950, encompasses many previously proposed legislative initiatives, from requiring public universities to extend in-state tuition to any veteran using their GI Bill benefit to authorizing fertility services for severely wounded service members.

But it also takes on the most contentious portion of the budget deal forged by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.: the reduction of the cost of living adjustment to military retired pay by 1 percent for retirees under age 62.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., would repeal the provision.

“These service members have paid a very, very high price for their service … it’s my belief as chairman of the [Senate] Veterans Committee, we have to do everything possible to give back to them and their families,” Sanders said during a telephone conference with reporters Wednesday.

The COLA reduction is expected to save the federal government $6 billion over 10 years. Sanders estimates that his entire bill, including the COLA cut repeal, will cost $30 billion over the next decade.

To pay for the extensive legislation, Sanders proposes taking funds from the Pentagon’s war budget — a solution likely to draw opposition from conservatives in the House and Senate, as well as the Defense Department.

Sanders said the decision to fund the bill with overseas contingency operations, or OCO funds, is not “definitive” but added that, given the omnibus spending bill signed by President Obama last Friday included $92 billion for OCO — $13 billion more than the administration’s request and $10 billion more than the Congressional Budget Office last estimated is needed — the money “can be used for the people who defended us.”

“It’s a legitimate use of this money,” Sanders said.

The COLA reduction is expected to save the federal government $6 billion over 10 years but has met with strong opposition from military advocacy groups, active duty and retired personnel and many members of Congress.

Other lawmakers have introduced legislation that would repeal the COLA reductions, offsetting the costs through proposals such as including halting Saturday postal service, eliminating tax loopholes for companies that keep offshore accounts and preventing illegal immigrants from claiming child tax credits.

None of these proposed offsets has widespread appeal among lawmakers.

Sanders expressed confidence that the COLA will be repealed and added that that it will have supporters in both the House and Senate.

“This legislation is the product of a year of bipartisan work and includes provisions important to almost every single veterans service organization and dozens of members of the Senate — Republican, Democrat and independent,” Sanders said.

If passed, the legislation would:

■ Extend the access for service members who deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan to get health care at VA from five years to 10;

■ Improve care and benefits for veterans who were victims of sexual assault while they served in the military, to include easing the claims process for affected veterans;

■ Expand alternative medical programs and chiropractic care and fund complementary medicine research at the Veterans Health Administration;

■ Seek to eliminate the Veterans Affairs claims backlog by 2015 by requiring VA to provide quarterly reports on its progress to Congress;

■ Backdate eligibility for veterans who need medical care for exposure to contaminated water at Camp Lejeune, N.C. to Aug. 1, 1953, complying with a recommendation by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, and;

■ Expand dental programs and services.

The bill also presses for widening of reproductive services and fertility treatments and providing adoption assistance for spouses or surrogates of severely wounded or ill troops whose infertility problems are related to activity in the line of duty.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has moved to advance the legislation after next week’s congressional recess. Sanders said he hoped it would be considered in short order.

“It’s hard to predict what will happen in the Senate tomorrow but [Sen. Reid] just re-indicated to me his desire to see this bill on the floor as soon as possible,” Sanders said.

The Military Officers Association of America was among the first veterans support organizations to express favor for the bill. MOAA president retired Vice Adm. Norb Ryan said it offers “comprehensive and much needed solutions for our returning warriors, veterans, survivors and family members.”

“MOAA deeply appreciates the inclusion of a provision in S. 1950 that repeals the unfair 1 percent COLA cut of the earned pensions of working age military retirees established in the Balanced Budget Act,” Ryan said.

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