Survivor benefits may get a boost

Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., and Defense Department officials have negotiated a proposed increase in military death benefits that would pay survivors of service members killed in Iraq and Afghanistan an additional $238,000.

The higher payments would be made retroactive to the start of the war in Afghanistan, in fall 2001, to help service families who have lost loved ones in combat as well as those who will in the future.

The proposal has two main features. Designated beneficiaries or next of kin of service members killed in war would receive an additional payment of $150,000 under Servicemembers Group Life Insurance, whether or not they had the coverage.

Also, the lump-sum military death gratuity, now $12,420, would be raised to $100,000 for deaths resulting from combat.

“The American people want to know that a soldier who gives his life for his country is generously taken care of. It’s important … as a statement of our support for those who go into harm’s way,” Sessions said.

The nation, he added, seeks a bond with its warriors, and part of that bond are assurances “that their families will be well taken care of if something happens to them. We’re not there yet. This bill would make a big step in that direction.”

A Sessions aide said the bill would raise military death benefits nearer to amounts typically paid to families of law enforcement personnel and firemen killed in the line of duty. Another consideration, he said, was the stark disparity in compensation paid to families of service members who die fighting terrorists and an average award of $1.7 million that the government has provided to families who lost loved ones in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., will join Sessions in sponsoring the Honoring Every Requirement of Exemplary Service (HEROES) Act. They will introduce it when Congress convenes later this month. Sessions said he expects it will attract broad support, and he predicted swift passage.

The senator said he negotiated the details over the last couple of months with David Chu, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness. Sessions said he expects the Bush administration to request the necessary funding – $460 million the first year – in the fiscal 2006 defense budget that Bush will send to Capitol Hill by early February.

A Defense Department spokeswoman said the department could “not speak for the White House” on the issue or confirm, at this time, that the defense budget request will cover higher death benefits.

But Sessions sounded confident.

Chu has “been in my office, and I’ve been in his office in the last number of months. The reason I think we may be in a position to see this occur rapidly is because the Defense Department will put it in their budget,” Sessions said. “Otherwise, we will have to find some offsetting financing, which becomes more complicated.”

Aides said the first-year costs are high because of the retroactive payments of bigger death gratuities and added payouts to the families of 1,500 service members who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Maximum Servicemembers Group Life Insurance coverage would be raised to $400,000 from $250,000 for all service members willing to pay higher premiums. At current rates, monthly premiums for the added $150,000 in coverage would be $9.75. The $400,000 maximum coverage would cost $26 a month.

The coverage also would be modified to include a “no surprises” feature, like one used with the military’s Survivor Benefit Plan. Members who opt out of maximum coverage would need to show that their spouse or other beneficiary knew about the decision.

While members serve in a combat area, premiums on the first $150,000 of coverage would be paid by the government. So a member who elected $400,000 maximum coverage would see premiums drop to $16.25. For the 2 percent of members who decline the insurance, $150,000 in coverage would take effect automatically while they served in a combat area. The government would pick up the cost. The idea is to protect the well-being of families, even if members themselves aren’t prudent about insurance.

Sessions, who serves on the Armed Services Committee, began working on death benefit legislation almost two years ago after a soldier from Alabama who had turned down insurance was among the first killed in Iraq. His family and those other members who died in recent combat, and previously got a $12,000 death gratuity, would receive an additional $88,000. They also would be in line for an additional $150,000 payout, whether or not they had the group life insurance.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist is said to favor the proposal.

“That’s important,” said Sessions, “because he can help us move it rapidly.”

To comment, write Military Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, VA, 20120-1111, e-mail milupdate@aol.com or go to www.militaryupdate.com.

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