Legislative Affairs July 2019 – by Barry Coyle
Legislation of interest to MOAA members continues to advance in Washington. On 25 June, President Trump signed the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act into law. This law authorizes the VA to provide treatment to Navy veterans who served in waters adjacent to Viet Nam and later contracted diseases linked to Agent Orange exposure. The law takes effect I January 2020, but he VA has announced that it is already accepting applications. In early July, both the House and Senate passed their versions of the 2020 Defense Authorization Bills. Both versions include a 3.1% pay increase for Active Duty Service Members. Neither includes increased TRICARE fees. The House version includes an amendment that would repeal the SBP-DIC offset. So all of MOAA’s top three priorities are being addressed in these Bills. However, there are significant differences between the House and Senate Authorization Bills that will have to be resolved in a Joint Conference Committee. This Committee will probably not convene until after the Summer recess in Congress. The long campaign to end the SBP-DIC offset, or “Widows’ Tax”, has advanced farther than ever. There are now 75 Senate and 359 House sponsors of Bills to repeal this offset. Its inclusion in the House version of the Authorization Bill will ensure it gets high level attention during the Conference Committee deliberations. No solution has been agreed for how to fund the cost of this repeal. So passage this year is by no means certain. I anticipate a MOAA campaign supporting this initiative and targeting members of the Joint Conference Committee when they convene later this year. Please be ready to support these efforts at http://www.moaa.org/takeaction/
In North Carolina news, this is not a banner year for Veteran/Retiree legislation. In the General Assembly, only 28 bills of interest have been filed so far. Of these, only 11 passed in their original Chamber and moved on for further deliberation in the other Chamber. Only one (a minor technical extension of previously provided funding for a Veterans Memorial) has been signed into law so far. None of the tax relief measures we have been following for several years came out of Committee in either Chamber. These include: House and Senate Bills to permit military retired pay to be deducted from NC income tax; House Bills to extend the military and government employee retired pay tax deduction to more recent retirees (Bailey-Patton extension) and provide additional property tax deductions for disabled Veterans. No provisions for Veteran/Retiree tax relief were included in either Chamber’s appropriation bills, or in the final budget bill sent to the Governor. (Gov. Cooper vetoed the Budget proposed by the General Assembly, but for reasons unrelated to Veterans initiatives. Budget negotiations are still in contentious work at this writing.) All this in spite of previously-reported strong lobbying campaigns led by 4th Branch and the NC Veterans Council, with MOAA participation, at the General Assembly in March and April. Not the start we were working for. However, we should be aware that there are tremendous pressures on the NC Budget this year to address the Governor’s priorities for Medicare expansion, education system improvements and state-wide disaster relief and recovery. So no bills that reduce tax revenue are getting much consideration. There is a long way to go in the 2019-2020 Legislative Session. There will still be opportunities to address some of these Veteran/Retiree issues in future Short and Long Sessions.
SBP-DIC Offset for Survivors
Issue : Current law unfairly makes military survivors forfeit part or all of their military Survivor Benefit Plan (SBP) annuity when military service causes the member's death.
Background: SBP allows uniformed services retirees to elect to provide continuing financial support for an eligible survivor. SBP provides the survivor 55% of the servicemember's military retired pay. Enrollment is elected at the time of retirement, and the retired member pays 6.5% of retired pay as a premium. Automatic coverage is extended to survivors of servicemembers who die on duty.
Dependency and Indemnity Compensation is a VA program providing a modest annuity for survivors of veterans whose death is determined to have been caused by military service.
Under current law, survivors who are eligible for both SBP and DIC must forfeit a dollar of their SBP annuity for every dollar of DIC received from the VA. Often, the offset wipes out the SBP annuity the military retiree paid for. In such cases, the survivor receives a proportional refund of SBP premiums - with no interest on what often has been many years of premium payments.
The October 2007 report of the Veterans Disability Benefits Commission urged elimination of the offset for all SBP-DIC widows, asserting that when military service causes the member's death, the indemnity compensation from the VA should be paidin addition to SBP coverage, not subtracted from it.
In multiple Congresses, a majority of House and Senate members acknowledged the inequity and cosponsored corrective legislation to recognize SBP and DIC are paid for different reasons. SBP is a servicemember-purchased annuity, whereas DIC is an indemnity payment when military service caused the member's death. Further, service-disabled retirees have limited opportunities to purchase additional life insurance, and policies that are available impose exorbitant premiums.
In 2008, Congress acknowledged the inequity in law, authorizing a modest Special Survivor Indemnity Allowance (SSIA) for SBP-DIC widows to begin phasing out the offset. In June 2009, Congress took the next step, increasing SSIA monthly payments to $150 beginning in FY2014 and rising to $310 in FY2017.
The accompanying House Armed Services Committee press release said,"This legislation (SSIA) is latest step in our continuing effort to eliminate the so-called 'widow's tax', which has long denied surviving family members the full payment of their Survivor Benefit Plan benefits… this bill does not completely end the offset … the House Committee …will continue to explore every opportunity to pursue legislation that brings us closer to eliminating the 'widow's tax'."
In the ultimate irony, a separate law, validated by the courts, terminates the offset for SBP-DIC-eligibles who remarry at age 57 or later. So current law punishes survivors who remarry before age 55 by ending their SBP and DIC eligibility - and punishes survivors age 57 or older who don't remarry by imposing the SBP-DIC offset.
No other federal surviving spouse is required to forfeit his or her federal annuity because military service caused their sponsor's death. Further, the offset does not apply to surviving military children - only to the spouse. And no other federal survivor is required to remarry to avoid a reduction in his or her survivor annuity eligibility.
The FY2018 NDAA permanently extended SSIA payments at $310, and will adjust that payment according to COLA each year going forward.
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SENCLAND Chapter maintains a non-partisan policy just as the National and NC Council of Chapters. We are dedicated to maintaining a strong national defense and ensuring our nation keeps its commitment to all serving and all who have served our country.