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Bill aims to aid kin of virus-killed vets; compensation due, Boozman says

Compensation due, Boozman says by Tess Vrbin | March 6, 2021 at 8:14 a.m.
U.S. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., departs the Capitol in Washington in this Jan. 25, 2020, file photo.

Some relatives of Arkansas veterans have had trouble obtaining the financial compensation they were promised after losing their family member to covid-19, and U.S. Sen. John Boozman said Friday that Congress needs to change that.

For the second year in a row, Boozman is co-sponsoring a bipartisan bill in the U.S. Senate that would make it easier for a veteran's family to claim benefits if the veteran had a preexisting "service-connected disability," or an illness or disability resulting from military service, before contracting and dying of covid-19.

The Ensuring Survivor Benefits During COVID-19 Act was first introduced in 2020 and reintroduced in January after the new Congress was sworn in. The legislation is a response to one of many "new things that simply haven't happened before covid," Boozman said.

"The death certificate says the cause of death was covid, but that's not really true," he said. "If the death certificate reads that way, it's much harder for the surviving spouse to prove the underlying conditions were service-related."

He gave the example of Agent Orange, an herbicide that the U.S. military used during the Vietnam War to destroy plant ecosystems. The chemical was later found to be the cause of several varieties of cancer in American soldiers exposed to it in Vietnam.

If the bill becomes law, it would require the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs "to get a medical opinion to determine if a service-connected disability was the principal or contributory cause of death" if the veteran's death certificate lists covid-19 as a cause. More than one cause of death would mean more financial compensation to veterans' families.

"As you get older, it's usually a combination of things [causing ill health]," Boozman said. "You acquire covid, but you were in pretty terrible shape to begin with. This is an effort to detail why you were in the terrible shape."

Three Republican and six Democratic senators are co-sponsoring the bill, and Boozman named Sens. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., as key proponents of the bill. All three serve on the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs. Boozman said the bill should have "a very, very good chance" of approval from both chambers of Congress.

Jessica Jacobsen, a regional spokeswoman for the Department of Veterans Affairs, said the department does not comment on pending legislation.

At the end of February, the Central Arkansas Veterans Healthcare System had seen more than 2,300 covid-19 cases since March 2020, including 95 coronavirus deaths, according to VA data.

The Fayetteville-based Veterans Healthcare System of the Ozarks at the end of last month had seen more than 1,800 cases of the virus and 99 deaths, according to VA data.

Boozman said the government should be sure to provide veterans' families what they are owed.

"These families are not wealthy families," he said. "These are elderly people for the most part, really struggling to get by. If the widow doesn't get that [financial] benefit, it really does make things that much more difficult."

Boozman also helped reintroduce the Major Richard Star Act, a bill aimed at providing full disability and retirement benefits to a subset of veterans that have seen deductions to their retirement pay because of a provision in current law.

According to Boozman's office, about 42,000 military retirees qualify for both retirement pay from the U.S. Department of Defense and disability benefits from the VA because of combat injuries. If those veterans served less than 20 years, however, their disability pay is deducted from their retirement.

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