Senate passes retroactive injury payments

(MILITARY TIMES)   An omnibus veterans bill passed late Wednesday by the Senate includes the promise of retroactive insurance payments to about 2,500 severely injured service members.

If the bill, S 728, becomes law, payments are expected to average $68,700 for the veterans who suffered a noncombat injury between Oct. 7, 2001, and Nov. 30, 2005, a period when Traumatic Servicemembers’ Group Life Insurance, known as TSGLI, applied only to those injured in the combat theater.

Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee chairman, said the $772 million bill — which includes improvements in disability compensation, pensions for low-income veterans, and in burial, insurance and readjustment benefits — has provisions that apply to veterans of all ages. That is a key point because Congress has been criticized for focusing on Iraq and Afghanistan veterans at the expense of older veterans.

Passage of the bill clears the way for the House and Senate veterans affairs committees to begin negotiating what provisions to include in a final benefits bill that lawmakers hope to pass before the end of the year.

Retroactive payments of TSGLI, which applies only to injuries since U.S. combat operations began in Afghanistan in late 2001, is an example of the balancing act facing lawmakers.

Initially, the traumatic insurance plan first offered in December 2005 applied only to combat injuries. But complaints about people injured stateside in training or on other military duties prompted lawmakers to expand coverage, although the expansion applied only to new injuries. The change included in the bill attempts to treat all veterans the same, although it still provides payments — which can be up to $100,000 for the most severe injuries — to people who have served since Oct. 7, 2001.

Also included in the bill:

• Supplemental funeral and burial expenses, now $300 in basic benefits and $2,000 to those who die of service-connected disabilities, would increase to $1,200 in basic benefits and $4,100 in supplemental benefits. The current $300 burial plot allowance for veterans would increase to $745.

• An $11,000 grant would be provided to modify an automobile for seriously disabled veterans who need to purchase or replace adaptive equipment. Grants would go to veterans who have lost the use or one or both hands or feet, or have severe vision impairment or severe burns. The grant would increase to $22,500 in 2011, and then be adjusted each year to cover 80 percent of the average retail cost of a new vehicle.

• Spouses and children of disabled veterans who are eligible for more than one veterans education benefits plan would be eligible for up to 81 months of combined benefits, instead of the current 48-month limit.

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