Disability pay for retirees defended

By Jon Dougherty

The Defense Department is decrying a little-known pay provision that is set to become law, calling it “double-dipping,” but the nation’s largest veterans’ group says the change is needed to give disabled veterans a benefit they deserve.

At issue is a provision known as “concurrent receipt,” which occurs when a person receives pay from the federal government for two forms of service. Current law says military retirees receiving pensions cannot also receive full pay for a military service-related disability.

“For example, if I were receiving military retirement of $1,000 a month but I was also getting $1,500 a month in Veteran’s Administration disability compensation, then I’d just have to forfeit my military retirement pay and only receive my disability,” said Steve Robertson, a spokesman for the 2.8-million member American Legion.

Robertson said under concurrent receipt, the amount of one benefit is offset “dollar for dollar” by the other. But the House and Senate have passed similar versions of bills that would do away with the century-old concept, allowing service members to collect full retirement pay and full pay for any disabilities received while on active duty in the armed forces – legislation the Legion supports.

Pentagon officials, however, say it would cost the Defense Department an additional $58 billion over the next 10 years. And, they say disabled military retirees would be receiving two paychecks for the same reason, a claim disputed by the Legion.

Charles Abell, assistant defense secretary for force management policy, told the American Forces Press Service the theory behind the current system is that if a service member completes military service and receives retired pay, and then also receives a VA payment for a condition related to that service, “it is two pays for the same event.”

The concurrent receipt legislation, part of the fiscal 2003 National Defense Authorization Bill, would allow retirees receiving 60 percent disability or more to receive their full disability and their full retirement, said AFPS.

Abell said that Defense Department research shows that the small number of veterans who would qualify for the new expanded benefits are already financially well-to-do.

If the bill passes, “active-duty soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines are going to live in substandard quarters and work in hangars where the roof leaks or try to perform the mission without all the spare parts they need because $58 billion will flow over to a group that, when measured against the American population at large, is certainly well-off,” Abell said.

“In our view, this is not good government,” Abell said. “We should know in the next 30 days what Congress will do. When the legislation gets to the White House, advisers will look at it and provide their recommendations to the president, and he’ll decide what to do.”

But Ronald F. Conley, the Legion’s national commander, said in a letter to members that DoD’s “double-dipping” theory was “patently ridiculous.”

He said the Pentagon’s $58 billion estimate “reflects hard-earned compensation that the nation takes from the pockets of hundreds of thousands of disabled veterans and their families.”

The Legion commander complained there was “not a peep” from Defense “about the discriminatory nature of existing law.”

“If these veterans had left the military after they incurred their service-connected disabilities and subsequently retired from any other federal agency except a branch of the U.S. armed forces, they would receive both retired pay and disability compensation in full. Service-connected military retirees make a sacrifice that no other service-connected federal retirees make,” he wrote. “That’s not right.”

He also said there was a price tag “more staggering” than the government’s current estimate.

“How many billions have been deducted from disabled retirees’ military retired pay over the years to save Uncle Sam the cost of their disability compensation?” he said. “That figure would be absolutely disgraceful.”

Conley accused the Defense Department’s “bean counters” of failing to realize the concurrent receipt principle as applied by the Pentagon reflects two different kinds of service, not the same kind.

“Retired pay is for longevity of service,” he wrote. “Disability compensation is for bodily sacrifice suffered as a result of military service.”

Abell said the Pentagon had made its position on concurrent receipt known to the House and Senate authorizers.

Conley, meanwhile, asked lawmakers to “bury the hatchet” between them “squarely into the obsolete language of a century-old law that steals from military retirees with service-connected disabilities.”

“Principle is routinely a casualty of DoD’s legislative and public-relations wars against service-connected military retirees, the only citizens who pay for their VA disability compensation,” Conley wrote.