Font Size Down Font Size Up Reset Font Size

Sign Up for Committee Updates

 

Submission For The Record of Military Survivors Alliance (Provisional Group)

Victoria Suzanne Stack, Fredericksburg, VA   Mitzy Kenny, Morgantown, WV
Michelle Fitz-Henry, Forest Park, IL  Marilena Beckstrand, Menifee, CA
Viviane Cisneros Wersel, Emerald Isle, NC Laura Youngblood, Columbus, Ohio
Rachelle M. Arroyave, Woodland, CA Karlynne Akos, Destin, FL
Julia Frampton, Clarksville, TN  Jackie Syverson, Carlisle, PA
Nichole Haycock, Ft. Sill, OK         Deanna Salie, Petal, MS
Linnie Blankenbecler, Ft. Hood, TX Cathy Burrier, Charlottesville, VA
Michele Linn (White), Bonsall, CA Yvette Plumhoff, Niceville, FL
Sara Clark, Niceville, FL Leslie Ponder, Clarksville, TN
Renee Martone, Niceville, FL  Norma Melo, Olympia, WA

INTRODUCTION

Distinguished Chairmen and Members of the Joint Senate and House Committee on Veterans Affairs, we are very grateful for the opportunity to provide a written statement to you and for the record about our views and suggestions concerning a few current issues facing surviving spouses and their families.

We are a small group of active duty Military survivors whose husbands died in the line of duty since September 11, 2001.  We are not a Veteran Service Organization and we do not have a majority membership in any Veteran Service Organization.  Therefore, we feel the need to come together and share our concerns, suggestions and recommendations for issues we face on a daily basis.  Our unique experience as survivors of military deaths and recipients of government death benefits allow us the opportunity to share with the Members of the Joint Committee first-hand knowledge of the needs and requirements of surviving families.

The SBP/DIC offset adversely affects 1,800 line of duty survivors (these are service members who were killed or died in the line of duty in the Global War on Terrorism) and 57,000 retiree survivors. 

It is our hope that the Joint Committee will benefit from our unique points of view and appreciate hearing our voices concerning these issues we know so well.

 SBP/DIC Offset

The Department of Defense (DoD) and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) offer two programs to survivors of military line of duty survivors and retiree survivors.  Uniformed Services Survivor Benefit Plan (SBP) is the DoD benefit program.  Dependency Indemnity Compensation (DIC) is the Department of Veterans Affairs program.  The number of survivors affected by the SBP/DIC offset is approximately 1,800 active duty surviving spouses and approximately 57,000 retiree surviving spouses.

Survivor Benefit Plan

Purpose: “To establish a program to insure that the surviving dependents of military personnel who die...will continue to have a reasonable level of income.”[1] 

SBP was established in 1972.  Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison proposed legislation in 2002 to expand coverage of SBP to include non-retirement eligible active duty personnel who die in the line of duty, effective September 10, 2001.[2] 

The SBP annuity is paid to survivors of retirees who die of service-connected causes and survivors of active duty Military personnel killed or who die in the line of duty.  The amount of the SBP annuity for an active duty death is typically calculated as though the service member died in a 100% disabled retired status.  The SBP calculation is 75% of retired pay or active duty base pay (which is either the last base pay received by the deceased service member or the average of the last “high-three” years) and then 55% of the remaining amount becomes the SBP annuity amount.

Dependency Indemnity Compensation

Purpose: “To authorize a payment to the surviving dependents of a deceased military member partially in order to replace family income lost due to the member’s death and partially to serve as reparation for the death.”[3]

Established in 1956, Dependency Indemnity Compensation (DIC) is a monthly payment awarded to survivors of service members whose death is from 1) a disease or injury incurred or aggravated in the line of duty while on active duty or active duty training; or 2) an injury incurred or aggravated in the line of duty while on inactive duty training; or 3) a disability compensable under laws administered by the VA.

Surviving spouses of service members who died prior to January 1, 1993, receive a DIC payment based on the service member’s pay grade.  Those surviving spouses of service members who died on or after January 1, 1993, receive a flat-rate DIC payment.  An additional payment of $265 per child is added to this indemnity payment if there are surviving children.

Survivor Benefit Plan – “Child-Only” Option

On November 23, 2003, Congress allowed active duty surviving spouses to select “child-only”option which pays the SBP annuity to the surviving children of deceased service members.  The annuity under the “child-only” option is not subject to the DIC dollar-for-dollar offset but at the irrevocable cost of permanent forfeiture of the lifetime SBP benefit by the surviving spouse.

Eligible children are the primary beneficiaries and the SBP annuity continues until the youngest child exceeds the age of eligibility, which is 18 or 23 if enrolled in an institute of higher learning and then it permanently ceases.  "Eligible children" are defined as adopted children, stepchildren, foster children and recognized natural.  Children of all marriages are eligible beneficiaries under this election.  SBP is taxable income and surviving children are subject to being taxed under the “child-only” option.

SBP/DIC Offset

The SBP annuity is subject to an offset by the DIC.  Basically the SBP annuity is reduced dollar-for-dollar by the amount of the DIC indemnity payment.  For many SBP annuitants this means that their SBP annuity is completely offset.  For others, it may mean that they receive only a minimal amount in an SBP annuity.  One recent annuitant receives a monthly check in the amount of $4.00 as an SBP annuity for her family.

The offset has a strong financial impact on all surviving families.  Many lower ranking service members’ survivors (E-6 and below) do not receive any SBP benefit because the offset completely reduces their SBP to $0.  Those families are incapable of providing adequately for their children.  The offset also affects higher ranking service members’ survivors by reducing their SBP to minimal amounts.  Thus, the offset negates the purpose of SBP altogether.  “A reasonable level of income” cannot be achieved with the offset in place.  The elimination of the offset would enable these survivors the ability to better care for their families now and in the future.  Retiree survivors who have experienced the offset are now aging and have more day-to-day care needs than ever before.  They are in need of “a reasonable level of income” in order to properly care for themselves.  The offset should be eliminated immediately for all survivors who presently have the offset affecting their SBP annuity.  To leave the offset in place is to detrimentally affect the two distinct purposes of the SBP and DIC for survivors. 

The courageous men and women who served in our military and died were promised that their families would be looked after and cared for in the event of their death.  To do anything less than completely eliminate the offset for these surviving spouses and their children would in effect prove that the promises given to these brave men and women were untrue.  The knowledge and belief in these promises are what allowed them to serve so gallantly.  We need to stand behind our promises, just as these men and women stood in front of our enemies.

SBP/DIC and Disabled Spouses

Disabled surviving spouses or disabled-eligible surviving spouses sometimes have bleak futures once their service member dies.  Many depended solely upon their service member just like children depend on their parents.  There are numerous special needs that now must be paid for out of their own pockets just to live day-to-day that had once been taken care of by their service member.  Living expenses of the disabled survivor are often much higher than for non-disabled survivor due to their disabled status and this can lead to a sense of isolation.  The isolation they are forced to live with is often compounded by the lack of affordable and handicap accessible living quarters that may possibly be closer to relatives and friends willing to help with day-to-day needs and appointments.

Disabled surviving spouses do not receive the same three-year TRICARE medical transition coverage and are forced, after their service members’ death, to purchase Medicare at a cost of $93 per month.  In addition, Medicare is the primary payer while TRICARE is the secondary payer to their medical claims.  This process results in substandard medical coverage, extra expenses for doctor visits, numerous prescriptions and emergency room visits.  Many problems faced by disabled survivors could be improved by the elimination of the offset.  The added income would afford them the opportunity and ability to better care for themselves and their families.  They even experience problems with applying for and being awarded non-traditional scholarships.  Most scholarship programs are set-up for traditional students and educational institutions.  These situations and more like them further isolate these disabled surviving spouses.

Elimination of the SBP/DIC Offset

Many Veterans Service Organizations (VSOs) have worked diligently with Members of Congress to eliminate the DIC offset since its inception.  It has been stated that service members either purchase the SBP and pay premiums with hard-earned retirement income or pay premiums with their lives.  The DIC indemnity is a special payment awarded to survivors for the service member’s premature death.  These two benefits and their purposes are fundamentally different and one should not be offset by the other.

The passage of enhanced death benefits provides naysayers with ammunition against the elimination of the offset.  Their belief is that Congress “solved” the SBP offset problem by passing into law increased Death Gratuity and SGLI and that all of the surviving families are in receipt of these funds in total.  This is not always the reality and is a misconception which should be rectified by the 110th Congress.

The Death Gratuity is a one-time, non-taxable payment to assist surviving families handle the immediate financial hardships they face after a service member dies.  The Death Gratuity is provided to the next of kin. 

The Servicemembers’ Group Life Insurance (SGLI) is a life insurance policy available for all members of the military.  It is a policy purchased by the Department of Veterans Affairs from a commercial life insurance company and is administered by the Office of Servicemembers’ Group Life Insurance (OSGLI).  SGLI is term insurance and is available for purchase by members on “active duty, active duty for training or inactive duty for training and members of the Ready Reserve or National Guard”.[4]  SGLI is offered to each service member who may opt to purchase or decline the SGLI.  Coverage is available in $50,000 increments up to the maximum of $400,000.

The service member who purchases SGLI designates “as principal beneficiary or contingent beneficiary any person, firm, corporation or legal entity (including the insured’s estate), individually or as a trustee.”[5]  Many surviving spouses and children are not the designated beneficiaries of the SGLI and thus receive no life insurance payment from SGLI.

The SGLI policy coverage has a minimum of 31 days and will continue until the service member elects to discontinue the coverage or until 120 days following his/her separation from service.  If the service member becomes 100% disabled, the coverage will continue for up to two years if the service member had full-time coverage.  More specific benefit features are detailed in the Handbook under SGLI/VGLI.[6]

“These death benefit enhancements recognize the direct sacrifice of life of those service members placed in harm’s way and in service to the nation.”[7]

The enhanced Death Gratuity improves the quality of life of the surviving families during the transition time immediately following the service member’s death.  The SGLI, however, is an optional life insurance policy purchased by the service member who then may designate any beneficiary they desire, thus providing no guaranteed annuity for surviving spouses.

While some view the enhancements as a “quick fix” to the SBP offset, many others do not.  These enhanced benefits do not always provide for those families left behind when a service member who dies has designated someone other that the surviving spouse and children as beneficiaries to the SGLI.  Many survivors, post October 7, 2001, are not the designated beneficiaries to the SGLI insurance.  These families are at a financial disadvantage, often catastrophically, and are unable to continue to live as they had while the service member was alive.  Many have had to move in with relatives or apply for social assistance in order to care for their families.

The Death Gratuity and SGLI life insurance should not be included in any decision consideration for the elimination of the offset.

When the War on Terror began, many retirement-eligible active duty service members were unable to retire or chose not to retire due to the high operations tempo of the two Operations in play.  Some chose to remain in service and some were affected by “stop-loss”.  These members stayed the course, provided leadership, experience and maturity to their units and the men and women they served with, ultimately losing their lives in support of the War on Terror and in defense of our great nation.  Now their families are left behind to continue without them.

The service member’s untimely death precluded them from retiring or, for some, becoming retirement-eligible.  They were not able to begin a second career, enjoy their military retirement benefits, swap war stories with other veterans or finish raising and providing for their families. 

Death, whether on active duty or retired, leaves surviving families with the same emotional and financial losses.  The offset should be eliminated for both line-of-duty and retiree survivors.  In our view, there is no difference between “paid premiums” and “paid with their lives” for a benefit to the surviving families.  Our belief is that our husbands would have gladly paid premiums for the benefit for their families had they lived long enough to complete their military service and retire.

Number of Line of Duty Surviving Spouses and Children Affected by the SBP/DIC Offset

The following is from the DoD Office of the Actuary.  These are approximate figures from September 2001 through September 30, 2006.  These numbers reflect line of duty deaths whereas the service member has a currently eligible survivor.

As of March 12, 2007, approximately 58% of line of duty deceased service members were married.  The DoD Office of the Actuary attributes:

~~~1,740 children are associated with 970 service members~~~ regardless of who they now live with.  There are 1,740 children receiving the “child-only” option SBP either because they have mothers/fathers who elected “child-only” option or because they live with someone else and the SBP goes into “child-only” automatically.  For surviving spouses who elect to give SBP to the child, they will lose the SBP when their child/children reach majority age (unless the child retains eligibility due to disability).

~~~ 840 surviving spouses receive at least $1 or more of SBP~~~  In these cases, the SBP is greater than the DIC (with the offset in place).  These survivors are either:  1) surviving spouses that do not have a child/children and who receive some SBP with the DIC offset in place; 2) surviving spouses that have a child/children and did not choose the “child-only” option of SBP and receive some SBP with the DIC offset in place.  These survivors will retain their SBP where the child/children reach majority age.

~~~900 surviving spouses whose SBP is totally offset by DIC~~  These surviving spouses are either:  1) surviving spouses with no children whose SBP is not greater than the DIC; 2) surviving spouses with a child/children who, for unknown reasons, did not choose the “child-only” option and the SBP is not greater than the DIC.

Grief Counseling/PTSD Counseling

TRICARE does not provide coverage for grief and bereavement or post-traumatic stress disorder counseling for family members of those service members’ who die in the line of duty.  These families are forced to experience numerous memorials, a funeral, and a final move from quarters or homes which they last shared with their service member, away from families, friends, schools and jobs.  These life changes all cause major strain and extreme emotional distress to the surviving families and with no counseling available, these families are left to handle these issues on their own sometimes with gut-wrenching results.

Office for Survivors

We support the creation of an Office for Survivors to provide survivors one location and contact point to obtain accurate and updated survivor benefit information and assistance after the Casualty Assistance Officer completes his duties.  The Office should be an integration of both the Department of Defense and Department of Veterans Affairs and should have available full access to any and all information pertinent to Military survivor issues.

Recommendations

SBP/DIC offset:  Congress permanently eliminate the offset provision to the Survivor Benefit Plan and Dependency Indemnity Compensation for all survivors affected by the offset.  The elimination of the offset would correct an inequity which has existed for some time for approximately 1,800 line-of-duty service members’ survivors and approximately 57,000 retiree survivors.  The offset is an unfair and unjust provision which hurts surviving families who have made the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom and democracy.

Grief Counseling/PTSD Counseling:  Include grief, post-traumatic stress disorder and survivor issue counseling in the TRICARE benefit and in all programs and plans.  Counseling for these specific issues and other survivor issues must be included in the TRICARE coverage for all military survivors. 

Office for Survivors:  Create an Office of Survivors in conjunction with the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs to provide assistance, accurate and updated information concerning survivor issues to survivors.

Conclusion

Our fallen heroes have given their lives in defense of our nation and all for which the United States stands.  The surviving families of these brave and steadfast men and women now endure life-long sacrifice without them.  Our spouses are no longer alive to fight for what meant most to them -- their families.  A grateful nation must pick up that fight, protect them and provide for them.

We are grateful for the work both Committees have done to provide and protect the families of our fallen and retired service members in the past.  We sincerely appreciate your continued efforts on behalf of the families of the fallen in pursuing the work our service members so bravely gave their lives for; their families, our country, our freedom and our democracy.  Thank you.


[1]    U.S. Department of Defense, Office of the Secretary of Defense, Military Compensation Background Papers, 5th ed., September 1996: 683.

[2]    Public Law 107-107.

[3]    U.S. Department of Defense, Office of the Secretary of Defense, Military Compensation Background Papers, 5th ed., September 1996: 627.

[4]    Servicemembers’ and Veterans’ Group Life Insurance Handbook, H-29-98-1, November 4, 2002, Revised:  March 1, 2007, Chapter 1, Section 1.01.

[5]   Servicemembers’ and Veterans’ Group Life Insurance Handbook, H-29-98-1, N November 4, 2002, Revised:  March 1, 2007, Chapter 6, Section 6.01.

[6]    SGLI Handbook, Chapter 1, Section 1.05-1.06.

[7]    U.S. Dept. of Defense, Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs), News Release No. 669-05, July 1, 2005.