Witness Testimony of Jamie H. Tomek, Chair, Government Relations Committee, Gold Star Wives
Madam Chair Murray, Chairman Miller, Ranking Members Burr and Filner, and Members of both the Senate and House Committees on Veterans Affairs, I am pleased to be here today to testify on behalf of Gold Star Wives on legislative issues pertinent to our nation’s military widows and widowers. My name is Jamie Tomek, Chair of the Gold Star Wives’ Government Relations Committee. I became the widow of First Lieutenant Glen D. Tomek, when he was killed in action April of 1969 in Vietnam. I am proud to represent Gold Star Wives here today, but would prefer to have not lost my husband 43 years ago…as is the case of every one of us here today.
Gold Star Wives of America (GSW), founded in 1945, is a Congressionally Chartered organization of surviving spouses of military members who died while serving on active duty or died from a service-connected cause. GSW is a volunteer organization.
We provide information about survivor benefits and assist survivors experiencing difficulties accessing their benefits. We strive to raise the awareness of Congress, the public, the military and veterans’ communities and GSW about the many inequities existing in our survivor programs and benefits. Many of our members volunteer in Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) hospitals and clinics and visit service members hospitalized at Department of Defense (DoD) medical treatment facilities. In 2010, GSW members reported volunteer hours and contributions valued at more than $200,000.
GSW’s current members are the surviving spouses of military members who served during World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, the conflicts in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and every period in between. For this written testimony, we will refer to all of members as surviving spouses.
Because the survivor population is a separate category of beneficiaries, we strongly encourage and suggest the use of the term survivor when speaking about veterans and their families or military personnel and their families.
We would like to thank Congressman Filner for including surviving spouses in the Mortgage Amendment to the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act; Congressman Bilirakis and his staff for intervening with the VA to ensure that DEA benefits were paid by direct deposit; and Senator Begich and Congressman Dan Young for legislation that would provide space available travel on military aircraft for many of our members.
We would also like to thank Senator Bill Nelson, Senator James Inhofe, and Representative Joe Wilson for their continued support of bills to eliminate the Dependency and Indemnity Compensation DIC offset to the Survivor Benefit Plan (SBP).
GSW’s most important issues are as follows:
Office of Survivors Assistance
The Office of Survivors Assistance was Congressionally mandated by Public Law 110-389, Title II Section 222 (Veterans’ Benefits Improvement Act of 2008) to serve as a resource regarding all benefits and services furnished by VA to Survivors and dependents of deceased veterans and survivors and dependents of deceased members of the Armed Forces. OSA serves as the primary advisor to the Secretary of Veterans Affairs on all matters related to policies, programs, legislative issues, and other initiatives affecting veterans’ survivors and dependents.
OSA honors the commitment made to its constituents for access to applicable benefits and services under the law. OSA also serves as an advocate for their special needs in the policy and programmatic decisions of the VA.
Since FY 2011, the office has been staffed by a Director and a Program Analyst. Currently, there is an active hiring action for a Staff Assistant to complement the staffing levels. GSW urges you to encourage VA to fully staff the Office of Survivors Assistance to ensure the purpose and intent of the Public Law is fulfilled.
We have established and maintained excellent contacts within the various organizations in VA to assist us with cases that involve extenuating circumstances. VA, in particular the Veterans Benefit Administration, has made and we are confident they will continue to improve processing times for claims. Perhaps the inclusion of survivor stakeholders should be considered as we can provide valuable input that could be included in the improvement process and we offer our assistance and look forward to collaborative efforts.
Training on Survivor Issues
GSW is often contacted by surviving spouses who have called the national VA phone number for information. In many cases, they were given incorrect or inadequate information about the benefits to which they were entitled. GSW suggests that the VA provide training on survivor benefits and issues for those who provide information on benefits. Such training would ensure that accurate, consistent, and timely information is provided to survivors.
Increase Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC)
The Servicemen’s and Veterans Survivor Benefit Act of 1956 established DIC (P. L. No. 84-881). The purpose of DIC is an indemnity payable to survivors when a military member dies of a service-connected cause.
GSW seeks parity with other Federal survivor programs when calculating DIC. DIC is currently paid to widows at 41% of the VA Disability Compensation received by the veteran with a 100% service-connected disability. The monthly flat-rate DIC is $1195. Other Federal survivor programs provide 55% of the retirement pay of the Federal employee to the widow. Bringing DIC’s computation to 55% would provide parity with other Federal survivor programs and would increase DIC by approximately $300 per month.
The continued economic stresses our country is now enduring places surviving spouses one step away from a car that stops running or an unpaid house payment or utility bill. In statistics received from OSA 44% of surviving spouses reported income below $20,000. Many surviving spouses are in financial distress, unable to pay for food, medical co-pays and utilities. Equalizing the computation of DIC would offer some relief from worry and would improve financial independence and confidence for GSW members. An increase in DIC should not subject the Survivor Benefit Plan (SBP) beneficiaries to further offset.
Congress should make the ethical decision now to change the DIC compensation to 55% that is afforded other Federal survivors. Why military surviving spouses must accept a lower percentage than other Federal survivor programs is incomprehensible to GSW. There has been no increase in DIC except for COLAs since flat rate DIC was implemented in 1993.
CHAMPVA Dental Plan
Congress enacted legislation requiring the VA to provide access to dental insurance plans through the CHAMPVA health insurance program. Eighteen months has passed and the policy is not yet in place. CHAMPVA recipients need access to both dental insurance plans to maintain their overall health.
GSW is thankful for this needed piece of legislation for our surviving spouses and children but we are perplexed and concerned at the length of time that has passed without implementation.
The new law directs the VA to determine how reasonable it is to sell dental insurance to veterans by conducting a feasibility study. However, the law is rather vague on specifics and leaves much left for the VA to decide. Although the legislation is very positive, it still leaves a lot that is yet to be determined.
This new insurance plan is intended to be voluntary. The VA will contract with a dental insurance agent to administer the program and will charge sufficient premiums to ensure the costs are covered. So far, there has been no information other than the bill’s text, which leaves key questions unclear, such as how patients and providers can sign up and where the pilot program will take place.
Dependent Education Assistance Program (DEA)
The DEA or Chapter 35 benefits need to be increased. Current benefits do not cover the costs of today’s tuition much less books, fees and living expenses. As quoted in Forbes, “For the past quarter-century, the cost of higher education has grown 440%, according to the National Center for Public Policy and Education.”
Surviving children of those who died on active duty after 9-11 receive benefits under the Marine Gunnery Sergeant John David Fry Scholarship. All other beneficiaries, including surviving spouses of those who died on active duty after 9-11, receive benefits under the DEA program.
The lack of adequate DEA benefits means that these surviving spouses and children require student loans and leaves the beneficiaries with a significant debt load.
In its 2005 report “Rising Above the Gathering Storm,” the National Academy of Science points out that for the United States to remain economically competitive and a world leader, our nation must invest in a future quality workforce (Tucker et.al. 2005).
According to the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, “The problem is not just a lack of proficiency among American interns; there is also a lack of interest in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) fields among many interns”. According to the Department of Commerce, female STEM majors earn 30 percent more an average income then non-stem graduates. (Surviving spouses are 98.2 percent female.) Therefore, GSW encourages the VA to embrace government incentive programs such as STEM and SMART Grants to ensure that qualified survivors receive the benefits of these programs.
Recent VA reports indicate that 49 percent of survivors are unaware of their education benefits. GSW encourages further outreach to surviving spouses about benefits. The reports also indicate that the majority of surviving spouses have only a high school education (from the 2010 National Survey of Veterans). The VA cannot currently provide statistics on the percentage of surviving spouses and children who use DEA benefits. The only available statistics indicate that there were a total of 90,657 participants, 14,904 of which are spouses and 75,753 are children. This is less than 2.9 percent of the survivor population.
Elimination of the DIC Offset to the SBP
Disabled military retirees view the Committee on Veterans Affairs as their protector and advocate. We are asking this Committee to be a protector of surviving spouses and ensure that our deceased husbands receive a benefit of retirement they worked hard to earn and for which they paid substantial premiums. In 1999, Congress decided to eliminate the offsets to military retired pay with an incrementally phased in plan.
Representative Jeff Miller, Chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs played a key role in restoring full SBP by eliminating the Social Security Offset to SBP [P.L. 108-375]. Unfortunately, military surviving spouses whose military spouse died on active duty or of a service-connected cause endured a second unjust offset – the DIC offset to SBP. Congress and DoD policy makers who have not suffered the misfortune of an early death due to military service should honor this selfless, responsible act of purchasing an annuity to provide for their family with utmost dignity.
There are 33,280 of the 57,134 surviving spouses whose husbands earned and purchased SBP receive nothing from the SBP annuity.
Public Law 108-183 [NDAA FY 2005] eliminated the DIC offset to SBP for surviving spouses who remarried after the age of 57. GSW appreciates the Committee’s “first step” to provide “survivor concurrent receipt” to remarried widows; however, we do not understand the logic used to abandon those of us who have not remarried.
GSW believes that Congress is ignoring the sacrifice of America’s Fallen Heroes by not recognizing their service and sacrifice with the dignity of earned and purchased retirement benefits. We believe the price of an early death, coupled with the responsible act to purchase a survivor annuity should be compelling when Congress is determining funding priorities. SBP is actually an employment benefit promised to the deceased service member. How is it that Congress placed a higher priority on granting full military retired pay to living disabled retirees but did not consider the benefits that deceased service members earned for their surviving spouses?
We ask that the members of the Committee on Veterans Affairs be more pro-active in finding the funding to pay full SBP to the surviving spouses of deceased service members. Surviving spouses of those who are acknowledged to have died in service to their country should not be victimized so that DoD can profit from the loss of the retiree. (For more detailed information, please see the GSW Fact Sheet at Attachment 1.)
TRICARE Dental Program (TDP)
The NDAA FY 2010 created new dental insurance provisions for surviving spouses and children of those who died on active duty after 9-11. These new dental insurance provisions align with the medical benefits these surviving spouses and children receive. Under the new provisions of TDP surviving spouses receive premium-free dental insurance under the active duty TDP for 3 years after the death of their military spouse, and surviving children receive premium-free dental insurance until they reach the age of majority.
When DoD implemented these changes to TDP, many of the eligible surviving spouses and surviving children were not notified the new benefit was available in a timely manner. Because of this delay in notification many of the surviving spouses who were participating in the TRICARE Retired Dental Plan (TDRP) continued to pay premiums for several months after they were entitled to premium-free dental insurance under TDP. Some surviving spouses paid as much as $500 in premiums to TDRP for themselves and their children because DoD failed to notify them in a timely manner.
These surviving spouses and children should be reimbursed for the expenses incurred due to this delayed notification.
The currently proposed “tiered” TRICARE fee system is based on the amount of military retirement pay retired service members receive. Surviving spouses and surviving children receive no military retirement pay.
Although the proposal includes provisions to exempt post 9-11 surviving spouses and children whose sponsor died on active duty the proposal failed to address fees for surviving spouses and children whose sponsor died on active duty before 9-11 or whose sponsor died of a service-connected cause.
When Congress processes the DoD proposal, they need to take into consideration that those who use:
- TRICARE Prime, already pay an annual enrollment fee and may have co-pays for medical appointments and hospitalization.
- TRICARE Standard, already pay 25% of the charges for medical care, the annual deductible and co-pays for any medications they obtain from the mail order or retail pharmacy programs.
- TRICARE for Life, already pay a minimum of $99.90 monthly for Medicare Part B ($1198.80annually), plus co-pays for medications purchased by mail or a retail pharmacy.
- There are many complications involved in this issue:
- Surviving spouses do not receive military retirement pay; some surviving spouses of retired service members receive SBP, which is an annuity based on a portion of the deceased service member’s military retirement pay, but not all deceased retired service members purchased SBP.
- Surviving spouses who receive only DIC of $1195 monthly cannot afford to pay these proposed fees. Would these spouses no longer be entitled to TRICARE if they could not pay the fees? Would they be entitled to military medical care in a military facility? Given the low priority of retired surviving spouses for military medical care would these surviving spouses ever be able to get an appointment for medical care?
- Other surviving spouses receive none of the SBP purchased by their sponsor because it is totally offset by DIC.
- Pre 9-11 surviving spouses of service members who died on active duty only receive SBP if their military spouse was retirement eligible when he died.
- Surviving spouses of retired service members who died of a service-connected cause are currently required to pay the higher family premiums if the children are to be covered by TRICARE Prime. TRICARE Prime is currently the only version of TRICARE that has a fee.
- If the service member had children from a previous marriage or relationship, would the family enrollment fee the legal surviving spouse pays cover TRICARE fees for the children of other marriages or relationships?
Surviving spouses look to us as their voice in Congress as we are the vanguards with changing the inequities of survivor benefits, educating the public as well as elected officials. However, this cannot be accomplished without your support. We are that family minus one – we are spouses and children, all having suffered the unbearable loss.
I believe that you who serve on these two committees feel similarly. Let us work to make this statement one of action and not just rhetoric. I appreciate the opportunity to be here and am happy to answer questions. Thank you.
Jamie Tomek became the widow of First Lieutenant Glen D. Tomek, when he was killed in action April of 1969 in Vietnam. She has worked with volunteers for more than 35 years. Twenty-five of those years were as a 4-H staff person in Missouri and 10 were as an executive director of a small arts council in rural Missouri. She has been a member of Gold Star Wives since her husband’s death and is proud to represent Gold Star Wives here today,
Neither Ms. Tomek nor the Gold Star Wives of America, Inc. have received any Federal grant or contract, relevant to the subject matter of this testimony, during the current or previous two fiscal years.
REPEALTHESURVIVOR BENEFITPLAN/DEPENDENCY ANDINDEMNITYCOMPENSATION
Objective: Torepealthelawthatrequiresa$1.00reductioninaDoDSurvivorBenefitProgram(SBP)foreach$1.00receivedfromtheVA'sDependencyandIndemnityCompensation(DIC)program. SBPisapremium-basedvoluntarilyselectedbenefit ofretirement.
MilitaryRetirementTrustFund Outgoing$55Billiontomilitary retirementandsurvivorpayments
$536Million(2012)owedto54,778 offsetWidows (lessthan1%of
OriginalSurvivorBenefitBillHR10670,signedbyPresidentRichard Nixon,Sept21, 1972,HouseReport92-481passedasafree-standingbill
NoDICoffset forotherbeneficiarycategories, suchas:
• Remarriedsurvivingspousesoverage57receivebothSBPandDIC payments(2004)
• FormerspousesmayreceiveSBPandcurrent spouse receivesDIC
• Survivingspousesofnon-serviceconnecteddeathreceive fullSBPupto55%(SBP/62)
• Federal CivilServiceAnnuityisnotoffsetbyDICandno premiums arepaidforsurvivorbenefit bycivilianemployees whodieinactiveemployment
• Commission onCareforAmerica'sReturningWounded
Tosupplement thesurvivorbenefit ofSocialSecurityatage62. (Repealedin2003)
• Toestablish asurvivor benefitsimilartotheFederalCivilServiceAnnuityor55%ofretiredpaywithareasonable"cost sharing"premium
• 2001, all militaryactive dutydeathsincludedinSBP,no premiums paid
• Federal Civilian Employee death... no premiums paid for survivorannuity