News Releases

VETERANS: Senator Murray Works to Expand Benefits for Veterans; Criticizes Bonuses Paid to Top VA Officials

May 09 2007

Murray Pushes Bills to Provide Lifetime Education Benefits, Increase COLAs, Assist POWs, and Help Gulf War Veterans with MS

Murray Says Bonuses Paid to Top VA Officials While Veterans Wait for Benefits Sends the Wrong Message

(Washington, D.C) - At a Senate hearing today, U.S. Senator Patty Murray (D-Wash) worked to expand and improve benefits for America's veterans. She also took issue with controversial bonuses that were paid to officials at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) while veterans face long delays in receiving benefits.



"We have a lot of veterans who are coming home from serving us overseas and when they do they find themselves fighting their own government. To me that's just wrong," Murray said at a hearing of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee. "For me, it's about keeping the promise to those who have served us. When I talk to my veterans at home today, they often tell me that they are forced to wait months or even years to get their claims processed. We're hearing about veterans who are getting different ratings and different benefits across the country and arbitrary limits on too many benefits."



When Murray turned to question the VA's Undersecretary for Benefits, Daniel Cooper, she expressed her concerns about bonuses paid to top VA officials.



"I am hearing from a number of our soldiers who've returned home who can't get their benefits because of a backlog at the VA. They're literally going for months without any income because of that backlog. When they hear about a senior VA official getting a bonus while they can't even get a benefit to keep them in their home or feed their family, it's pretty disturbing," Murray told Undersecretary Cooper.



Murray also expressed dismay that bonuses went to VA budget planners, whose projections were off by more than $1 billion.



In addition, Murray said she was frustrated that President Bush put restrictions on the work of a VA panel focused on ways to improve the transition from the Pentagon to the VA. The President limited the task force to policies that do not require new costs or new authority.



"That's like saying -- tell us how we can fix the problem, but leave out anything that costs money or requires new authority," Murray said. "I think we're in a bind right now because we haven't been looking at the options."



Today's hearing was held to examine several proposed bills that would improve veterans benefits. The committee considered two bills written by Murray (on Multiple Sclerosis and Prisoners of War) and several other bills that Murray supports to expand education benefits and provide increased Cost of Living Adjustments (COLAs) for veterans.



Murray's Bill to Help Veterans with Multiple Sclerosis (S. 847)

Senator Murray's bill, S.847, would eliminate the current seven-year window that allows a veteran to claim service connectedness for multiple sclerosis (MS) and extend that service connectedness window indefinitely. Supporters of the bill include MS Vets, the National Gulf War Resource Center, Veterans of Foreign Wars, American Legion and Disabled American Veterans.



Under current law, a veteran who is diagnosed with MS up to seven years after their honorable discharge can receive a service-connected status. But if they're diagnosed seven years and one day after they leave the military, they're not eligible. That limit doesn't make sense because a person with MS might not show symptoms for years - even though they have the disease. Veterans with MS should not be penalized because their symptoms were diagnosed more than 7 years after separation.



Murray's Bill to Improve Benefits for Prisoners of War (S.848)

Senator Murray's bill, The Prisoner of War Benefits Act of 2007 (S.848), would eliminate the requirement that a prisoner of war (POW) must have been interned for a minimum of 30 days for certain diseases to be presumed to be service connected. The bill would also add Type II diabetes and osteoporosis to the listed presumptive diseases; and it would require VA to expand the list to include diseases that warrant such presumption by reason of having a positive association with the experience of being a prisoner of war. Murray's bill is supported by Veterans of Foreign Wars, Paralyzed Veterans of America, American Legion and Disabled American Veterans.



"An American service member who's held as a Prisoner of War for more than 30 days gets POW benefits. But one who's held in captivity for 29 days - just one day less - is told - "Sorry, no help for you." That's not fair," Murray said.



Senator Murray also supports a number of other benefits bills which were considered at today's hearing , including the following:



Extend the GI Bill's Education Benefits (S. 1261)

Senator Murray is a co-sponsor of the Montgomery GI Bill for Life Act of 2007, introduced by Senator Cantwell (D-WA). This bill would repeal the 10-year limit on use of Montgomery GI Bill educational assistance benefits, and for other purposes. It would eliminate the existing time limits within which a veteran must use educational assistance benefits under the Montgomery GI Bill. Currently, GI Bill participants have up to 10 years from their date of discharge from the military to use their earned education benefits; members of the Selected Reserve have up to 14 years. This bill would make education benefits under the Montgomery GI Bill available to eligible veterans at any point in their lifetime.

COLA for Veterans (S.423)

Senator Murray is a co-sponsor of the Veterans' Compensation Cost-of-Living Adjustment Act of 2007, introduced by Senator Daniel Akaka (D-HI). This bill would increase, effective December 1, 2007, the rates of compensation for veterans with service-connected disabilities and the rates of dependency and indemnity compensation for the survivors of certain disabled veterans. This bill would increase the rates of compensation for veterans with service-connected disabilities and the rates of dependency and indemnity compensation (DIC) for the survivors of certain disabled veterans effective December 1, 2007. The rate increase is based on the Bureau of Labor Statistics' Consumer Price Index (CPI), the same index that determines rate adjustments for Social Security benefits. The current estimate for FY 08 is a CPI increase of 1.4 percent.



Merchant Mariners of WWII (S.961)

Senator Murray is a co-sponsor of the Belated Thank You to the Merchant Mariners of WWII Act of 2007, introduced by Senator Ben Nelson (D-FL). The bill directs the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to pay a monthly, tax-exempt benefit of $1,000 to certain members of the U.S. Merchant Marines, or their surviving spouse, who were employed by the War Shipping Administration or the Office of Defense Transportation during World War II between the dates of December 7, 1941 and December 31, 1946. Merchant Marines who served off-shore between December 7, 1941 and August 15, 1945 were granted veterans status in 1988. The benefits provided by this bill would be in addition to VA benefits currently received by Merchant Marine veterans and those received by all other veterans.



Senator Murray's full prepared statement from today's hearing follows:



Mr. Chairman, thank you very much for holding this hearing to improve veterans' benefits, and thank you for including two of my bills. For me, this is about keeping our country's promise to those who serve and sacrifice for all of us. In a time of war, it's even more important that the benefits we provide our veterans are comprehensive, timely, and meet today's needs.



Unfortunately, we're falling short of our obligation today. When I speak to veterans in my home state of Washington, they tell me they're forced to wait months - even years - to get their claims processed. Veterans with the same health problems are given different ratings and different benefits across the country. And I hear about arbitrary limits that slam doors in the faces of our veterans. Many of our service members who fought overseas are now returning home and being forced to fight their own government for what they deserve. That's just wrong. Fortunately, we have a number of good ideas that we're considering today to fix these problems.



One of the things that really frustrates me is when veterans are denied benefits because of artificial and arbitrary deadlines. Service members answer our county's call, but when they return home and need help - they get hit with an asterisk. They get hit with some arbitrary exclusion that makes them suddenly ineligible for benefits. And I've found these exclusions aren't based on any sound logic - they're just arbitrary, artificial limits that hurt our veterans.



For example, an American service member who's held as a Prisoner of War for more than 30 days gets POW benefits. But one who's held in captivity for 29 days - just one day less - is told - "Sorry, no help for you." That's not fair.



Or take the case of a Gulf War veteran who develops Multiple Sclerosis seven years after leaving the military. That veteran is covered, but a veteran who develops the same disease one day later is left out on their own. That doesn't make any sense, and it does not reflect the promise we make to everyone who signs up to serve our country.



My Bill on Multiple Sclerosis

So I've introduced two bills to get rid of those arbitrary, artificial limits so we can give our veterans benefits - not excuses. The first bill, S.847, would remove the seven-year limit for veterans to get service-connected status for Multiple Sclerosis (MS). My bill is supported by MS Vets, the National Gulf War Resource Center, Veterans of Foreign Wars, American Legion and Disabled American Veterans.



Multiple Sclerosis is a chronic neurological disease with symptoms that can include blindness, paralysis and more. It's a disease that I know well because my father, who served in World War II, was disabled by MS.



Rates of MS are higher among Gulf War veterans than the general population. Under current law, a veteran who is diagnosed with MS within seven years from their honorable discharge can receive a service-connected status. But if they're diagnosed seven years and one day after they leave the military, they're not eligible. That limit doesn't make sense because a person with MS might not show symptoms for years - even though they have the disease. Veterans with MS should not be penalized because their symptoms were diagnosed more than 7 years after separation. We know that a significantly higher number of veterans who served in the Persian Gulf during the Gulf War have MS. What we don't know is the exact cause of that MS. It could be experimental vaccines, toxins from oil-well fires, Sarin exposure, pesticides, combat stress or any combination. I think we should give veterans the benefit of the doubt. My bill makes MS a presumptive disability, no matter when its symptoms emerge, and I urge all my colleagues to join with MS Vets, the National Gulf War Resource Center, Veterans of Foreign Wars, American Legion, and Disabled American Veterans to support this bill.



My Bill to Extend Benefits for POWs

My second bill being considered today is, S.848, the Prisoner of War Benefits Act of 2007. POW's shouldn't have to meet an arbitrary 30-day requirement for internment to qualify for benefits as a POW. As the American Legion points out in their testimony today, even relatively short confinements as a prisoner of war can have long-lasting, adverse health effects.



My bill, the POW Benefits Act of 2007, would:

  • Repeal the current minimum (30 day) period veterans need to be interned before they get some presumptive service connected disabilities.


  • Add type II diabetes and osteoporosis to the list of presumptive service connected disabilities for former POWs; and


  • Set up the authority for administrative review by the VA to add or remove additional presumptive service connected diseases/conditions for former POWs.


Mr. Chairman, we've got a lot of work to do to fix the VA benefits system and a good start would be to knock down these arbitrary barriers that hurt our veterans. I look forward to working with our colleagues to do just that.