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House passes automatic COLA for veterans

May. 21, 2013 - 04:13PM   |  
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Annual cost-of-living adjustments in veterans’ disability and survivor benefits would become automatic — just like Social Security — beginning in 2014 under a bill passed by the House on Tuesday.

Passage came after the House modified the bill to overcome objections from major veterans groups who, while unopposed to automatic increases, were fighting a cost-cutting provision to round monthly benefits payments down to the next lowest dollar.

The measure passed by voice vote.

Rounding down benefits checks doesn’t reduce any individual’s payment by more than 99 cents a month, but the cumulative savings is $26 million in fiscal 2015 and $1.4 billion over 10 years, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.

Rounding down veterans’ benefits checks is a practice already in use, but it has been applied for short periods, usually three to five years at a time, as a way to generate money to pay for other veterans’ programs. Major veterans’ groups oppose making this permanent, especially if there is nothing in it for vets.

In response to those complaints, Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., amended the bill so that savings from rounding down checks would pay for dramatic increases in monthly aid and attendance payments provided as special compensation for severely injured veterans. Miller chairs the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee.

The current benefit is either $2,002 or $2,983 a month for veterans who need full-time help, with the higher rate paid to veterans with a greater need for care.

The $2,002 payment would increase to $2,742 on Dec. 1, 2014, and to $3,163 on Dec. 1, 2018. The $2,983 monthly payment would increase to $4,085 on Dec. 1, 2014, and to $4,713 on Dec. 1, 2018.

Miller described the amendment as “reinvesting” savings in veterans programs.

Automatic increases in veterans’ COLAs would not take effect until Dec. 1, 2014, meaning Congress would still have to pass a bill for veterans’ benefits to increase on Dec. 1 of this year by the same amount as Social Security.

The size of the 2013 and 2014 increases will be determined by changes in the Consumer Price Index, a Bureau of Labor Statistics survey of the cost of goods and services. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office forecasts a 1.5 percent COLA for Dec. 1, 2013, and a 2 percent increase for Dec. 1, 2014.

The Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee is considering a similar bill, sponsored by its chairman, Vermont Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, and ranking Republican Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina.

Their bill also would round down benefits checks but would not allocate the savings to any veterans’ programs, something that could change in light of the amendment to the House bill.

Rep. Jon Runyan, R-N.J., chief sponsor of the automatic COLA bill, said the primary goal is to avoid uncertainty about whether veterans and survivors will get the increase that automatically goes to recipients of Social Security, military retired pay and federal civilian.

Congress has always acted, sooner or later, to provide the same COLA for everyone, but retroactive payments have been required when the bill authorizing the increase is delayed.

A delay was narrowly avoided last year, when Congress did not pass a final veterans’ COLA bill before taking a long break for the November elections. With the Veterans Affairs Department warning about delays in payments, Congress ended up passing the Dec. 1 increase on Nov. 13, just in time for VA to process the change in disability and survivor benefits and pensions for low-income veterans.

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