Metro Weekly

Sen. Shaheen urges Veterans Affairs to halt “discriminatory policy”

March 9, 2015

The Hon. Robert McDonald

Secretary

Department of Veterans Affairs

810 Vermont Avenue, NW

Washington, DC 20420

Dear Secretary McDonald:

I write to express my concern over reports that the Department has taken action to recoup benefits from certain veterans based on their sexual orientation.  I recognize that current law does not permit the provision of family benefits to gay or lesbian veterans living in states that do not recognize same-sex marriage.  However, given the Supreme Court’s upcoming hearing on the issue of marriage equality, I urge you to issue a moratorium on collection efforts until the Court has reached a decision.

As you know, in U.S. v. Windsor the Supreme Court ended the federal government’s prohibition on providing benefits to same-sex couples.  Unfortunately, the VA remains unable to provide equal benefits to gay and lesbian veterans.  In order to qualify for family benefits, a veteran’s marriage must be legal according to the laws of their home state.  As a result, veterans living in states that recognize same-sex marriage are eligible for all dependent benefits.  However, veterans with identical service records, disability ratings, and family size living in states that do not recognize same-sex marriage are receiving less than they are entitled.  This clear inequity not only violates the spirit of the Court’s decision in Windsor, it also offends the basic notions of equal protection.

I am hopeful that this issue will soon be addressed through either the legislative or judicial process.  To that end, I have introduced the Charlie Morgan Military Spouses Equal Treatment Act (S.270).  This legislation would alter the definition of marriage in Title 38 to ensure that all veterans receive the benefits they have earned regardless where they live.  In addition, the Supreme Court is set to hear arguments next month regarding state laws banning gay marriage.  I am optimistic that either the Congress or the Court will rectify this unfortunate situation soon. 

In the interim, I urge the Department to make every effort to mitigate the impact of this plainly discriminatory policy.  For example, the American Military Partner Association recently highlighted a case involving a female service-disabled veteran forced to repay the VA for benefits she received and was later declared ineligible for based on her sexual orientation. Specifically, the report states that after serving five years in Iraq, the veteran was awarded a 50 percent disability rating, including additional funds to support her wife and child.  After more than a year, the veteran was informed that as a resident of Texas, her marriage was not recognized, and that payments made on her wife and daughter’s behalf would need to be returned.  To repay the amount owed, VA has significantly reduced the veteran’s monthly disability payments, jeopardizing the veteran and her family’s well-being.  

I hope you will make every effort to grant relief in the case described above and implement a moratorium on similar collection efforts moving forward, at least until the Court has an opportunity to rule.

I appreciate your consideration of this issue, and I thank you for your service to our nation.

Sincerely,

Jeanne Shaheen

United States Senator 

Justin Snow is Metro Weekly's former political editor and White House correspondent. Follow him on Twitter @JustinCSnow.

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