WASHINGTON — White House officials this week backed away from one controversial veterans benefits cut but are sticking with a similar plan to trim other payouts to help balance the budget.
On Wednesday, Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin told senators that the administration is looking to drop plans to radically overhaul his department's Individual Unemployability benefit, a move that would save more than $3 billion but strip up to $20,000 from 210,000 elderly disabled veterans.
"The president is concerned about government being too large," Shulkin told reporters after the hearing. "So our responsibility is to make sure the programs we have are working well. But the president and I do not want to be taking away benefits from those who need it."
Veterans advocates had railed against the change for weeks, and praised Shulkin's decision as a step towards protecting veterans. But their further lobbying to convince the White House to abandon plans to round down veterans' cost-of-living increases were less successful.
"The round down is still an active proposal that we have," Shulkin said when asked about that benefits trim.
Rounding down VA the annual benefits hikes was VA policy from the late 1990s until 2013. White House officials have said returning to the move will save $20 million in fiscal 2018 alone.
At most, individual veterans stand to lose less than $12 per year, VA officials said. Still, veterans groups have sharply criticized the idea.
Carlos Fuentes, director of national legislative services for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, called it "balancing the budget on the backs of our nation's veterans" at a Senate budget hearing this week. LeRoy Acosta, assistant national service director for Disabled American Veterans, said it will siphon off $2.7 billion in earned veterans benefits over 10 years and "hurt our nation's injured and ill veterans, their families and survivors."
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., helped change the round-down policy during his time as chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee. He blasted the proposal this week.
"I don't think we should be nickel and diming veterans," he said. "I mean, we've been through this for years. I thought we got rid of it, and it's sad to see that it's coming back."
But others in Congress may be open to the idea. Current committee chairman Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., urged veterans groups to have an open mind on the potential changes, especially since the White House is planning a budget boost of nearly 6 percent for fiscal 2018.
"There are a lot of things out there (with) VA and its existence and benefit existence and health care," he said. "But times have changed, things have changed. We probably ought to look at everything that we've got out there."
Shulkin says he plans on working with veterans groups and Congress to find responsible reforms and savings to current benefits programs. Meanwhile, House appropriators have already begun moving their draft of the annual VA budget bill, without any mention of the round-down plans.
Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at email@example.com