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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Monday, November 29, 2004


Congress beefs up VA benefits

By Tom Philpott

Congress in mid-November passed three bills that will raise veterans' benefits, improve pay for VA doctors and strengthen veterans' legal rights.

The bills cap another year of solid pay and benefit gains for a military community that lawmakers recognize is under enormous strain.

Congress also has begun to reverse some of the post-Cold War drawdown, voting to raise active Army forces by 20,000 and the Marines by 3,000. Top pay initiatives this year include a 3.5 percent raise and the last of a series of above-average increases in the basic allowance for housing.

With 182,000 Reserve and Guard members mobilized, Congress is anxious to avoid a recruiting and retention crisis. But lawmakers also began to heed Bush administration warnings about cost and to link new benefits to service.

Reservists, for example, will see better education benefits but only if they were mobilized for at least 90 days. By May, drilling reservists will be able to buy TRICARE standard coverage at a reasonable rate. They are entitled to a year's coverage for every 90 days of activivated service.

Military retirees and survivors scored a huge victory when Congress voted to phase out by April 2008 a sharp drop in Survivor Benefit Plan payments that occur at age 62.

The other big winners from the 2004 legislation year are 15,000 retirees with 20 or more years of service and disability ratings of 100 percent. On Jan. 1, they will see their military retired pay fully restored. Congress voted to accelerate for this group a planned 10-year phase out of the ban on concurrent receipt of military retirement and disability pay.

Tops among the three new veterans bills passed and sent to the White House for signature is the Veterans Benefits Improvement Act (S 2486).

This bill will:

• Open the Montgomery GI Bill to drilling reservists if they complete two consecutive years of active-duty service. They will have a year after deactivation to pay a required $1,200 buy-in contribution.

• Increase by $100 a month GI Bill payments for apprenticeship or on-the-job training.

• Increase to $333,700 the maximum home loan amount allowed under the VA loan guaranty program.

• Provide an additional $250 a month in dependency and indemnity compensation, for two years, to surviving spouses who have children under age 18.

• Require the Department of Veterans Affairs to exclude life insurance payments from income calculations when determining death pension benefits.

• Restart VA guarantees for adjustable rate mortgages, though 2008.

• Extend the VA hybrid adjustable rate mortgage loan program.

• Increase to 24 months the period that an employer must make health benefits available to mobilized reservists.

The VA Health Care Personnel Enhancement Act (S 2484) will increase pay to VA physician and dentists. And the Veterans Health Programs

Improvement Act (HR 3936) would end patient co-payments for VA-provided hospice care, require VA to establish centers to study new treatments for the most severe war wounds, and increase aid to homeless veterans.

Write Military Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, VA 20120-1111, e-mail milupdate@aol.com or see www.militaryupdate.com.