Dateline: November 6, 2014
When a U.S. veteran gets veterans retirement, veterans disability and Social Security disability benefit checks at the same time, it’s called “triple dipping.” It’s perfectly legal and it happens to the tune of $3.5 billion a year, according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO).
Triple-Dipping Background and Extent
Under current law, almost all disabled U.S. military personnel are eligible to receive concurrent monthly benefit payments from Department of Defense (DOD) retirement, Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) disability, and Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI).
Note that SSDI should not be confused with Social Security Supplemental Security Income (SSI), which provides benefits to disabled persons with limited incomes, regardless of their age or work history.
Until 2002, veterans were barred by a law passed during the Civil War from receiving both VA retirement and disability benefits.
However, with bipartisan support driven by the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks, Congress passed the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for fiscal year 2002, part of which gradually restored VA retirement benefits to veterans also getting VA disability benefits.
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According to the GAO’s analysis, 59,251 veterans triple-dipped in fiscal year 2013, receiving a total of over $3.5 billion in benefits from DOD, VA, and SSDI.
About 68% of the individuals receiving concurrent payments each received from $25,000 to $74,999 in total compensation for the year, with an average payment being about $59,000. However, the GAO also found that a total of 2,304 individuals – about 4% -- received triple-dipping payments of $100,000 or more, with the highest beneficiary receiving $208,757.
Ages of triple-dippers ranged from 19 to 66, with almost half -- 48% -- of the individuals being age 60 or above as of January 2013. Just over 81% of the individuals had a VA disability rating equal to or greater than 50%, and 17% received compensation due to a combat-related disability.
VA disability benefits payments are tax-exempt.
Overall, only about 3% of the nation’s 1.9 million military retirees collect all three benefits, according to the GAO.
Why Triple-Dipping Could be an Issue
The GAO was asked to examine triple-dipping by U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma), long known for his staunch opposition to wasteful earmark spending, questionable research grants, and unnecessary duplication of government programs.
What worries Sen. Coburn and several of his fellow lawmakers is an estimate by Social Security Board of Trustees projecting that the SSDI trust fund will be exhausted in 2016 unless changes to concurrent benefit compensation laws are made soon. The same Social Security Board of Trustees has estimated that all Social Security trust funds may be gone by 2042.
For example, in July 2012, the GAO reported that over 100,000 SSDI beneficiaries who received concurrent cash-benefit payments from the SSDI and unemployment-insurance programs got payments totaling more than $850 million.
Based on the finding of that report, Sen. Coburn asked the GAO to examine other federal benefit programs that could be overlapping with disability programs administered by the Social Security Administration, like DOD retirement and VA disability.
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Quoted in the Washington Post on November 1, Sen. Coburn said the GAO’s analysis showed, “We should fulfill our promises to the men and women who serve, but we need to streamline these duplicative programs.”
“This is billions of dollars a year in duplicative payments,” Coburn told the newspaper. “We ought to reassess and say, ‘Are we doing more than take care of people in need?’ I'm not against the military. I don't think they should be triple dipping.”
Contending that their members have earned every cent of both their VA retirement and service-related disability benefits, veterans’ advocacy groups disagree.
In the Washington Post story, Louis Celli Jr., a D.C.-based representative for the American Legion called Coburn and other opponents of concurrent benefits “misguided and uninformed.” Alluding to the fact that Coburn has announced his retirement from the Senate at the end of the year, Celli called the GAO report something that “should simply be filed in the category of one of Sen. Coburn's parting shots to loyal upstanding American patriots who have sacrificed so much for this country.”