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Disabled vets denied cost-of-living boosts

More than 2.1-million disabled veterans won't be getting the cost-of-living increases they expected in their January compensation checks because congressional negotiators failed to include the funds in the new federal budget. Most veterans affected apparently are unaware so far that they will be losing increases that range from just over $4 to more than $230 a month on benefits that provide up to $4,300 a month for disabled veterans.

Charles Lucas, a spokesman for the Veterans' Benefits Administration, confirmed Thursday that the intended 5.4 percent cost-of-living boost is dead for this year. But Lucas said Congress might take it up again when it goes back to work next year.

Even if Congress resurrects the COLA increase in January, Lucas said it will be at least April until the increases appear on compensation checks, and there is no guarantee the increases would be retroactive to Jan. 1.

"It would be sheer speculation to try to predict what Congress might do," he said.

Rep. Michael Bilirakis, a Palm Harbor Republican and a member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, has sent a letter to veterans' groups in his district pledging an attempt to revive the cost-of-living boost early next year. Bilirakis, who co-sponsored the original bill to raise veterans' disability compensation by 5.4 percent, said he would push to make the increase retroactive.

"To say that he was outraged that the COLA was dropped is to understate his position," said Bilirakis aide Bob

Meyers. "These are people injured in the service of their country, and they deserve the increase."

John Heilman, legislative director of Disabled American Veterans, said he was "disgusted" by Congress' failure to approve the cost-of-living adjustments.

"It's the height of irresponsibility for a few people to thwart compensation for millions," Heilman said. "It underscores that in Congress as a whole, in both parties and in both houses, the concerns of disabled veterans do not have a very high priority. They wouldn't have let this happen to Social Security."

Heilman said that because of fiscal cutbacks, the Department of Veterans Affairs also will lose on Dec. 31 the budget authority to provide health care to Vietnam veterans exposed to Agent Orange and to the so-called atomic veterans, those exposed to radiation in Japan at the close of World War II and those exposed as they witnessed atmospheric atomic tests during the 1950s and '60s.

Most disabled veterans don't know yet about the loss of cost-of-living adjustments or the health-care cutbacks, Heilman said.

"The vets don't know, and until we started getting the word out earlier this week, most members of Congress didn't know, either," he said. "Well, they should have known. A week from now, on Veterans Day, we'll hear all the political rhetoric from the politicians, but it will be nothing more than empty words so far as I'm concerned."

Evelyn Morton, a legislative representative for the American Association of Retired Persons, said she had heard rumors that the veterans' disability compensation COLA died with the budget conferees, but did not know it to be a fact until informed by the St. Petersburg Times on Thursday.

"It was one of the things slated to come out in reconciliation, and we knew it could fail, but we didn't know yet that it actually had," Morton said. "We would usually hear from our members by phone about something like this, but we haven't had calls yet. The disabled veterans weren't expecting this, and they probably don't know about it yet."

The Times made inquiries about the COLA loss after being alerted by a Port Richey reader.

Lucas said the cost-of-living increases on veterans' regular pensions are tied to Social Security and will not be affected by the failure to enact COLA on disability compensation.

Unless Congress acts to revive the disability COLAs next year, veterans' compensation checks will continue at their current rates. That range is from $76 a month for veterans 10 percent disabled by injury or illness in the service to $1,537 for 100 percent disabilities. Those who are deemed severely disabled _ quadriplegics, for example _ can receive monthly compensation as high as $4,300.

Had the 5.4 percent cost-of-living increase been approved, a veteran receiving $76 a month now would have received an increase of $4.10. A veteran who is 100 disabled would have received another $83. A severely disabled veteran at the top of the compensation schedule would have received $232.20 more.

"That's not an insignificant amount of money," Lucas said. "And these are our primary customers. The primary purpose of (the Department of) Veterans Affairs is to take care of veterans with service-connected disabilities, and this will hit some of them pretty hard, especially if they were counting on the increase."

Heilman said he was particularly disturbed by the special-interest, or pork-barrel legislation that made it into the new budget, even as disabled veterans' benefits fell by the wayside.

"There's a $19-million authorization for a study of the methane content of cows' gas," he said. "Congress didn't have time for disabled vets' needs, but the members managed to find $19-million to study bovine flatulence. You explain that. I can't."

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