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A New Hampshire senator vowed Tuesday to press ahead on legislation to provide full veterans benefits to same-sex couples after the Veterans Affairs Department determined changes in law are required to ensure all couples are treated the same.
The Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee already has passed the measure, S 373, but had been waiting to hear from VA about whether the legislation was even necessary to provide equal benefits to same-sex couples after the Supreme Court ruling on the Defense of Marriage Act.
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., the chief sponsor of bill, said VA Secretary Eric Shinseki wrote her on Aug. 14 to say VA and the Justice Department had determined changes in law were required.
Some provisions of law involving veterans benefits define “spouse” and “surviving spouse” as “a person of the opposite sex,” Shinseki said in the letter. “Under these provisions, a same-sex marriage recognized by a state would not confer spousal status for purposes of eligibility for VA benefits,” he said.
Waiting on changes in law means the Defense Department will be moving faster than VA on extending benefits to gay couples. Defense officials have already made some changes and plan for wider benefits coverage beginning Sept. 3, when the same-sex spouses of service members will be able to get identification cards and enroll in the military health care system.
“I am committed to making this happen,” Shaheen said of extending full veterans benefits to gay couples. “Every individual who serves in uniform deserves access to the benefits that they’ve earned and rightfully deserve. We can’t tolerate this type of discrimination, especially in the aftermath of a historic Supreme Court ruling that declared the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional.” The Supreme Court ruling came on June 26.
Shaheen’s bill is called the Charlie Morgan Military Spouses Equal Treatment Act, named for National Guard chief warrant officer who died earlier this year, leaving behind a wife, Karen, and a daughter who were not eligible for survivor benefits. There is a similar House bill, HR 683, sponsored by Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee. Smith’s bill is pending before the armed services subcommittee on military personnel.
Shaheen’s measure was approved July 24 by the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee but the measure has not yet been cleared for floor debate in the full Senate. One holdup is that the Congressional Budget Office has not yet prepared a cost estimate for the bill, which will increase VA expenses for disability and survivors benefits.
The bill would consider a person a spouse for the purpose of receiving military and benefits as long as the couple’s marriage was legal. This would apply to couples married in the U.S. or to marriages outside the U.S. that are recognized as valid within the U.S.