For those who follow the issue of pension/disability benefits reform for military retirees, this year’s legislative season was a disappointment, with none of the 3 bills to amend 10 USC § 1414’s ban on dual compensation for medically retired “Chapter 61” military retirees making it into the National Defense Authorization Act that’s passed each year to govern military spending.
For background, those who retire from the US military earn a military retirement/pension from the branch of the Service they served in, under Title 10 of the United States Code, and those who serve for 30 days or more and incur a service-connected disability may receive disability compensation from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) under Title 38 of the United States Code. Normally, a person has to serve for 20 years or more in order to earn a military pension, but there’s a moving target, Temporary Early Retirement Authority (TERA), that is sometimes offered to some service members in some career fields, allowing them to retire and earn a military pension with 15 or more years of service. Then there’s a third category of military retirees, “Chapter 61” medical retirees. I’m one of them. This category is reserved for severely disabled members of the military, whose disability/disabilities (1) are service-connected, and (2) prevent the service member from continuing to serve in the military, i.e. do his/her job safely. There’s a lengthy, painful process the service member must endure before being involuntarily retired under Chapter 61 that commonly takes 2 years or even longer, and complaints of unfairness in the process and regarding disability ratings are common. If TERA was unavailable for the service member’s career field at the time of forced medical retirement, s/he will be retired under Chapter 61 even if s/he has 18 or 19 years of service. Thus, some TERA retirees served less than Chapter 61 retirees, yet are allowed “dual compensation” while Chapter 61 retirees are not.
Back to this year’s legislative season. No relief was granted for Chapter 61 medical retirees from an 1800s Civil War Pensions reform law that bars us from receiving both our military pensions and VA disability compensation. Still, to put things in perspective, it took many years of lobbying for the current reforms (beginning in 2003) that benefit 20+ year (and 15+ year TERA) retirees who have a 50% or higher VA disability rating, so now’s certainly not the time to give up. Those reforms, codified at 10 USC § 1414, allow normal retirees and TERA retirees to receive both their military pensions and VA disability compensation, without offset/deduction to avoid “dual compensation,” so long as they are rated at least 50% disabled by the VA.
Although in the past I’ve focused on deleting 10 USC § 1414(b)(2), which would cause Chapter 61 medical retirees to be treated just like normal and TERA retirees, I have a narrower lobbying focus for the short term: relief for Chapter 61 medical retirees who have a 100% VA disability rating. This demographic is a small subset of total Chapter 61 retirees, and therefore a smaller “hit” to the federal budget. According to at least one source, it would cost $30 billion over the next 10 years to remove the financial penalty against “dual compensation” for all military retirees who have a VA disability rating. This number doesn’t just include Chapter 61 medical retirees, however–it also includes normal and TERA retirees who have a VA disability rating between 10-40%. Therefore, the actual cost of simply treating Chapter 61 retirees like 20+ year and TERA retirees would actually be less. However, even keeping this in mind, the cost to the federal government would be even smaller still if in the short term we only sought pension reform/relief for Chapter 61 retirees who have a 100% VA disability rating. This is our most sympathetic demographic–the most disabled among us. (Or at least those who were lucky enough to be treated the most fairly by the VA on our ratings decisions).
According to the VA, “[t]he percentage ratings represent as far as can practicably be determined the average impairment in earning capacity resulting from such diseases and injuries and their residual conditions in civil occupations.” 38 CFR § 4.1, Essentials of evaluative rating. In other words, someone with a 100% VA disability rating is, on average, suffering a 100% reduction in his/her earning capacity due to service-connected injuries and/or illnesses. That’s a severely disabled veteran in my book.
I wrote a letter/email to Congress, and some more arguments surrounding this reform, here:
Ideally, we’ll get Congress to delete 10 USC § 1414(b)(2) completely, and just treat Chapter 61 retirees the same as all other retirees. It just makes sense, especially since TERA is a complete crap shoot in terms of whether it was offered at the time a service member was medically retired, for the MOS/AFSC/Rating that member had at the time s/he retired. Treat Chapter 61 like every other retiree, and apply the same rules re dual compensation. (Meaning for now, we’d all get both our VA and our military pensions without offset so long as we were rated at least 50% disabled by the VA).
That said, I’ve spoken with a Congressional staffer who told me money was the issue and treating Chapter 61 retirees the same as other military retirees for dual compensation purposes wasn’t going to happen. This was from a Republican Congressman, so if that’s in fact the party line, we’re not going to get anywhere with the current Congress.
Limiting the effort (for now!) to 100% VA disabled, on the other hand, takes away a lot of the “this will blow up the budget” argument and should also generate sympathy for the most disabled among us. It’s an easy “win” for either/both political parties in Congress because it shows they’re doing something to help veterans. I’d hope this could be a bipartisan reform.
What do you say we all write our Representatives and Senators, and tell them we want 10 USC § 1414 amended so that Chapter 61 retirees with 100% VA disability ratings are treated the same as all other retirees–no penalty or offset between VA disability compensation and our military pensions. It’s a smaller, more achievable goal in the short term.
Once this reform is passed, then we press on and lobby Congress to delete 10 USC § 1414(b)(2) completely and stop differentiating between Chapter 61 and other (“normal” + TERA) retirees. That’s what would be the most fair, but in the mean time let’s try to help out our most vulnerable and get the ball moving in the right direction. It’d be nice to see some Congressional movement on Chapter 61 retirees.