‘Hard choices’ at VA include possible cut to unemployability benefit

Faced with a “hard decision” on the budget, the Department of Veterans Affairs is again eyeing limits on Individual Unemployability, a benefit for over 200,000 disabled vets. It’s faces stiff opposition from vets, with one asking, “You’ve seen the suicide rate high now? Wait until this happens.” (Photo by Chad Garland/Cronkite News)

WASHINGTON – Faced with a “hard decision” on the budget, the Department of Veterans Affairs is again considering new limits on the Individual Unemployability benefit that currently helps more than 200,000 disabled veterans.

Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin, telling a House panel this summer that providing unemployment benefits to vets “above the age of 80 … isn’t what makes sense to the average American,” has proposed cutting the IU benefit for vets once they are eligible for Social Security.

That is a step back from an earlier idea floated by Shulkin to eliminate the IU program and shift its funds to the underfunded VA’s Choice program, which lets vets seek private health care without affecting their benefits. But even the scaled-back reductions have veterans concerned.

“If they do something to IU, that’s going to really hurt veterans,” said Chuck Byers, chief service officer for the Arizona chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America.

“I’ve had vets come to me and say, ‘You think you’ve seen the suicide rate high now? Wait until this happens,'” Byers said of the threat of an IU benefits reduction.

But Shulkin said the VA is being forced to make tough choices. He told the House Veterans Affairs Committee that he does not think the VA can “only expand services” and that a program like IU, that pays for veterans’ retirement and unemployment, needs a closer look.

“If we were designing this system from the beginning, we wouldn’t have used us (the VA),” he said. “To withdraw that money now is something that would be very difficult to do.”

Veterans and lawmakers agree, noting that previous efforts to trim IU benefits have run into harsh opposition.

The Individual Unemployability program compensates eligible disabled veterans at the 100 percent disability rate regardless of the veteran’s service-connected disability level.

Disability ratings are assigned on a scale of 0 to 100 percent, usually in increments of 10. While a 100 percent disabled veteran is not always completely incapacitated, he or she would be severely impacted by physical or mental wounds.

To be eligible for IU, veterans must have one service-connected disability of 60 percent or higher or multiple service-connected disabilities that total 70 percent or more, with at least one having a rating of 40 percent.

The VA says disabilities must be service-connected and prevent the veteran from maintaining “substantially gainful employment.” Odd jobs and other “marginal employment” do not count as gainful employment, according to the VA.

Shulkin said the VA is considering ending IU benefits to vets who become old enough for Social Security, a move that would save the agency an estimated $3.2 million in 2018. Veterans who are unable to collect Social Security would be exempt.

The program was targeted even though the VA’s discretionary budget rose from $74.5 billion this year to a proposed $78.9 billion in the president’s fiscal 2018 budget request. But Shulkin, in a “State of the VA” address in May, said the agency’s “problems are not largely going to be solved through additional money,” but through more efficient management.

Veterans groups argue the cutting IU is the wrong approach. Vietnam Veterans of America National President John Rowan said in a June statement that eliminating IU would lead to an “impoverished” aging veteran population and could lead to homelessness or suicide.

In a June 12 letter to Shulkin, Arizona Democratic Reps. Tom O’Halleran of Sedona, Ruben Gallego of Phoenix and Raul Grijalva of Tucson called the cuts “short-sighted.”

“The proposed cuts … undermine the promises and commitments we have made to our veterans,” O’Halleran said a statement.

Gallego, an Iraq War veteran, called the proposed cuts “shameful,” saying they could “push thousands of vets into poverty.”

Opponents to the cuts note that disabled vets have been out of the work force, which means they have not been paying as much into Social Security and likely have no access to 401(K) retirement funds.

“It is unfair and simply wrong to characterize IU and Social Security as duplicative,” Rowan said in his statement. “Veterans have earned both benefits, IU by virtue of their service … and Social Security through working and contributing into the system.”

It is not clear how many of the 535,470 veterans in Arizona currently in the IU program, but Byers said those get the benefits need them.

“You’re disabled,” Byers said. “You’re disabled and that’s it.”

Byers also said that spouses are eligible for health care through IU. Losing that, coupled with the potential loss of IU’s monthly payout of about $1,600 per month, could devastate a family if it ran into health problems.

“This would certainly be a hardship,” Byers said.

O’Halleran said the cuts target veterans at risk of becoming “destitute and impoverished,” adding that “we must not turn our backs on our most vulnerable veterans who have sacrificed for our country.”