Exclusive: VA Secretary May Back Off Proposed Cuts To Benefits Today

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On Wednesday, February 1, 2017, VA Under Secretary for Health Dr. David J. Shulkin testified before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee on his nomination as Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs.
VA/Robert Turtil

Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin will express his openness to jettisoning a controversial plan to cut “individual unemployability” benefits for older veterans in his Senate testimony this afternoon, sources tell Task & Purpose.

Shulkin is set to testify in a hearing on the department’s budget before the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs at 2:30 PM today, along with representatives of the nation’s largest veteran service organizations. And while those groups are on the same page as Shulkin in urging Congress to expand VA’s funding, the department’s proposed cuts to individual unemployability (IU) have become a source of tension and anger in the veterans community.

Multiple sources with knowledge of the discussions tell Task & Purpose that in a closed session with several senators on June 13, Shulkin indicated that he had permission from the White House to consider junking the IU cuts — if he could find “alternative ways to save money” in the VA budget, according to one of those sources.

“We certainly hope the Administration reverses its position on revoking IU benefits for retirement aged veterans,” Carlos Fuentes, national legislative director for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, told T&P.; “We’ve heard from thousands of veterans who would be impacted if the proposal were enacted.”

Although the Trump administration has proposed a 6% increase in VA’s budget, most of the new funding goes to expanding the department’s Choice program, expanding private health-care options for vets in need. The Trump budget proposal offsets much of that spending by proposing cuts to certain veterans’ services, and IU was one of the most heavily impacted programs.

The IU benefit is essentially a kicker for veterans with a 60% to 100% disability rating whose disabilities keep them from obtaining gainful employment. IU augments their regular disability benefits, enabling vets with lower ratings to collect the highest disability amount for the duration of their joblessness.

A single vet with a 60% disability rating can collect up to $2,915 monthly under the program.

Under the Trump budget plan, vets who reach Social Security age would have their IU benefits drastically reduced — even though their Social Security payments are generally very low, since they’ve been unemployed and unable to make significant contributions through their paychecks. That single vet’s payout could drop from $2,915 to $1,062, according to a recent Stars & Stripes analysis.

“Frankly, we’re extremely alarmed by this provision in the budget proposal, because this is the opposite of what President Trump promised veterans,” John Rowan, national director of Vietnam Veterans of America, said in a statement after the plan was unveiled in May. The IU reduction, he added, “abandons many of the most severely disabled veterans of the Vietnam generation and could make thousands of elderly veterans homeless.”

Shulkin has been sensitive to veterans’ backlash against the IU cuts.

“I understand that there is a lot of passion on this, and we will have plenty of time to work with Congress and with our veteran service organizations to make sure that we're getting this right,” he told reporters in a White House press conference late last month.

In an exclusive interview with Task & Purpose on June 12, Shulkin didn’t directly address individual unemployability, but stressed that keeping the confidence of veterans on this and other issues was a national security priority.

“If we don’t make sure that veterans know that when we send them off to war, that when they come back that we have their back, that they’re taken care of, fewer and fewer people, I think, are gonna raise their hand and go off and voluntarily agree to put their lives at risk,” he said.

Approached for comment Wednesday, a VA spokesman told Task & Purpose: "We have no announcements to make."

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