On April 24, 2008, the Senate passed S. 1315, the proposed "Veterans' Benefits Enhancement Act of 2007." Although the bill passed the Senate by a vote of 96-1, there are some who oppose it, expressing the belief that provisions in the bill misallocate VA pension benefits to reward non-veterans. I seek to set the record straight on S. 1315.
Mr. President, S. 1315 is a comprehensive bill that would improve benefits and services for veterans, both young and old. The bill includes numerous enhancements to a broad range of veterans' benefits, including life insurance programs for disabled veterans, traumatic injury coverage for active duty servicemembers, and specially adapted housing and automobile and adaptive equipment benefits for individuals with severe burn injuries. In addition, the bill includes a provision that would correct an injustice done to World War II Filipino veterans over 60 years ago. It grants recognition and full veterans' status to these individuals, both those living inside and outside the United States.
Many Americans have forgotten that during World War II, the Philippines was not an independent Nation as is the case today. The Philippines, along with Puerto Rico and Guam, was ceded to the United States in 1898 following the Spanish-American War. Although plans for Philippine independence from the United States were underway when World War II broke out, the United States government controlled the defense and foreign relations of the Philippines when the war began. It was not until 1946, after the end of World War II, that the Philippines became an independent nation. As a result of this relationship, Filipino veterans who fought under the United States Command were United States veterans until that status was taken away by Congress in 1946.
S. 1315, the bill as passed by the Senate, would overturn a 2006 decision of the United States Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims in the case, Hartness v. Nicholson. The Hartness decision provided that certain veterans, those who receive a service pension benefit based solely on their age, qualify for additional benefits that are provided to very severely disabled veterans, a result not intended by Congress. The savings generated from overturning this court decision would pay for many provisions in the bill, including pension for Filipino veterans.
Despite the fact that the purpose of the provision in S. 1315 which reverses the Hartness decision is to do nothing more than restore the clear intent of Congress, it has been mischaracterized by some as an attempt to withdraw benefits from deserving veterans in order to fund benefits to Filipino veterans. That is simply not the case. Such accusations fail to appreciate the facts of the matter that led the Senate to take corrective action.
Mr. President, VA non-service connected disability pension benefits have historically been paid to wartime veterans with low incomes who are disabled from conditions not connected to their service. Under current law, wartime veterans who receive pensions based upon disability are eligible to receive certain additional benefits if they are totally disabled and are also housebound, blind, or need the aid and attendance of another person to perform daily activities.
The statutory provision involved in Hartness was enacted in 2001 so as to provide a service pension, not based on disability, to certain veterans. Under this law, older, low income wartime veterans are eligible for a service pension at age 65, without the need to demonstrate any disability. This service pension, which is similar to one provided many years ago to veterans of the Spanish American War, is found in the service pension section of the statute, not in the section of the law where pension for disabled veterans is found.
The court in Hartness ruled that elderly persons who are not totally disabled, but who receive a service pension based on age, could also receive the extra benefits available under the disability pension benefit program, even if they did not meet the threshold requirement of total disability. In so doing, the Hartness court failed to demonstrate an understanding of the difference between a service pension and a pension based on disability.
In passing the service pension law in 2001, Congress clearly created a separate program and did not intend the result in the Hartness decision. Congress intended that veterans who were disabled would receive benefits under the disability pension program, with the opportunity to receive the extra benefits if they were more seriously disabled. Veterans who met the age threshold, but who were not disabled, would receive benefits only under the service pension program, with no basis for receiving the extra benefits. The intent of this action was to create a bright line distinction between the two pension programs, but the actual statutory construction allowed for ambiguity, leading the court to misinterpret the law.
The provision passed by the Senate in S. 1315 would overturn the Hartness decision so as to reaffirm that the extra pension benefits are only for those severely disabled veterans who receive pension on the basis of being totally disabled. This result conforms to the original Congressional intent of reserving the special additional benefits for those who demonstrate the greatest need based on disability, not simply those who attain a certain age. Even with the repeal of Hartness, aged veterans who are totally disabled and who are also housebound or in need of aid and attendance would still qualify for additional money under the non-service connected disability pension program.
Mr. President, S. 1315 is now pending in the House of Representatives and there is some opposition to the bill that seems to stem from a misunderstanding of the purpose of VA pension benefits and the Hartness decision. Critics of the bill have suggested that it arbitrarily redistributes scarce VA benefits to the benefit of individuals to whom our government has no responsibility. These critics fail both to understand the history of the provisions construed in the Hartness decision and the service of Filipino veterans. Restoring the original purpose of the service pension law would provide the savings needed to pay for increased benefits for veterans with service-connected disabilities as well as justice for Filipino veterans of World War II.