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VA: Congress has until December to pass COLA

Oct. 5, 2012 - 03:10PM   |   Last Updated: Oct. 5, 2012 - 03:10PM  |  
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The Veterans Affairs Department has revised its estimate on how long it takes to process a cost-of-living adjustment in disability and survivors benefits, giving Congress until early December to approve an increase that would first appear in Jan. 1 payments.

Pending legislation that was left in limbo after Congress left town for a pre-election break provides the same COLA automatically provided to Social Security recipients and military retirees to those receiving veterans' disability compensation, pensions, and dependency and indemnity compensation for survivors. The House has passed the legislation, but not the Senate.

The amount of the increase has not yet been calculated, but the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates the COLA will be at least 1.3 percent. About 3.9 million veterans or survivors would be affected.

One week ago, VA's press office issued a statement saying veterans would not see their COLA in January checks unless Congress approved legislation authorizing the increase on Nov. 13, the first day lawmakers will be back after taking a break for the Nov. 6 elections.

Now, VA has provided a different answer, saying it could make the January payments as long as Congress acts by the first week of December and makes no change in rates other than a COLA, according to aides in contact with VA who asked not to be identified by name.

In a statement, VA officials confirmed the deadline had changed, saying a conversion of pay records makes it possible to wait longer for the Congress to act. "After extensive discussion recently with the government and contract teams working on these systems," the Veterans Benefits Administration "has identified an alternate method that would allow for changes later in the year."

The VA statement does not provide a specific deadline for Congress to act but congressional aides said they were told the drop-dead date for changes is the week of December 3.

VA's Sept. 27 statement marking an earlier deadline came as Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee chairwoman, claimed an unidentified Republican senator had objected to passing the COLA increase by voice vote.

"This is stunning," Murray said in a statement, "particularly because we still don't have any indication why someone would block a cost-of-living adjustment for veterans and their surviving spouses, many of whom are struggling to make ends meet."

The objection, never linked to a specific senator, was quickly dropped, but a vote on a bill to provide the increase now cannot happen until the Senate returns.

A senior Senate Republican aide who asked not to be identified said there was no attempt to block veterans from getting a COLA. The problem, instead, was that senators were being asked to consider voice-vote passage of dozens of bills — so many that senators and their staffs did not have enough time to review all of them, the aide said.

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