Trump budget hard on veterans, too

President Trump’s budget request is very hard on many people across the country, but especially in Maine.

It slashes the social safety net, deeply cutting SNAP food assistance benefits and Medicaid for low-income families while eliminating the Low Income Heating Energy Assistance Program that’s vital to many Mainers. It cuts off investments that help our state job create jobs, clean up polluted sites, and repair our aging infrastructure. It weakens the ability of the EPA to perform essential functions, meaning more climate change and polluted air for Maine.

But over and over, the Trump Administration has claimed that veterans are taken care of. They assert that the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is one of the few federal agencies to get an increase in funding.

However, that overall increase masks disturbing cuts to a vital VA program for older disabled veterans. In many other ways, too, veterans were not spared in this budget request.

First, a bit of explanation. Veterans who are disabled due to their service get monthly compensation based on their overall disability rating. If a veteran has multiple disabilities, the VA has a complicated formula for adding them together for a total, which ranges from 10–100%. For instance, even if a veteran has several individual disabilities that add up to more than 100%, their total disability rating might be 80%.

There is a special status for veterans who are unable to work because of their service-connected disabilities but do not have a 100% disability rating. If they have a rating of 60 percent or over and meet certain requirements from the VA, they receive Individual Unemployability (IU) status — and are compensated at the full 100% benefit. About 225,000 veterans across the country depend on the IU program.

These veterans are now able to receive the 100% IU benefit in retirement. President Trump’s budget would eliminate IU benefits for retirement-aged veterans — a $3.2 billion cut.

For example, a single veteran in IU status with a 70 percent disability rating currently receives $2,915 a month. Without IU, that veteran would receive only $1,338 a month. This represents a 54 percent benefit cut of $1,577 a month.

There would be little to cushion the blow. Since these veterans had their careers cut short, they missed years of paying into Social Security or other retirement plans, leading to sharply reduced benefits. The proposal also jeopardizes other state and federal benefits that are available to veterans with IU status, like tax breaks and health care coverage for spouses.

I’ve heard from many Maine veterans who depend on this program and are distraught over the prospect of losing a vital source of income and a quality of life they earned with their sacrifice. These aging, disabled veterans feel that they have been sold out at the most vulnerable point in their lives.

I have been outspoken in my criticism of this proposal and recently joined colleagues from both parties in urging VA Secretary David Shulkin to withdraw it. With Maine’s aging population and high number of veterans, I feel it could hit our state especially hard.

The elimination of Individual Unemployability is the most egregious slight of veterans in the budget request, but it’s by no means the only one. Veterans in need depend on the social safety net like everyone else and will no doubt suffer from efforts to slash it. The budget also goes after federal employees — nearly one-third of whom are veterans.

It’s important to know that this budget request is by no means a done deal. The House Appropriations Committee, which I sit on, must approve spending proposals before they go on to the full House. Members from both parties have expressed serious concerns about many elements of the budget request and over the last few weeks I’ve had the chance to share mine directly with members of President Trump’s cabinet.

But, as they say, a budget is a statement of priorities. In the case of veterans who sacrificed for our nation, the Administration’s priority seems to be saying one thing while doing another.

Congresswoman Chellie Pingree represents Maine’s 1st District in the U.S. House of Representatives.

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