Sanders succeeded in getting the Senate to approve an amendment last week against changing how the cost-of-living increases are calculated, but the vote was largely symbolic. Lawmakers would still have a decision to make if moving to chained CPI were to be included as part of a bargain on taxes and spending.
Sanders' counterpart on the House side, Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., the chairman of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, appears at least open to the idea of going to chained CPI.
"My first priority is ensuring that America's more than 20 million veterans receive the care and benefits they have earned, but with a national debt fast approaching $17 trillion, Washington's fiscal irresponsibility may threaten the very provision of veterans' benefits," Miller said. "Achieving a balanced budget and reducing our national debt will help us keep the promises America has made to those who have worn the uniform, and I am committed to working with Democrats and Republicans to do just that."
Marshall Archer, 30, a former Marine Corps corporal who served two stints in Iraq, has a unique perspective about the impact of slowing the growth of veterans' benefits. He collects disability payments to compensate him for damaged knees and shoulders as well as post-traumatic stress disorder. He also works as a veterans' liaison for the city of Portland, Maine, helping some 200 low-income veterans find housing.
Archer notes that on a personal level, the reduction in future disability payments would also be accompanied down the road by a smaller Social Security check when he retires. That means he would take a double hit to his income.
"We all volunteered to serve, so we all volunteered to sacrifice," he said. "I don't believe that you should ever ask those who have already volunteered to sacrifice to then sacrifice again."
That said, Archer indicated he would be willing to "chip in" if he believes that everyone is required to give as well.
He said he's more worried about the veterans he's trying to help find a place to sleep. About a third of his clients rely on VA pension payments averaging just over $1,000 a month. He said their VA pension allows them to pay rent, heat their home and buy groceries, but that's about it.
"This policy, if it ever went into effect, would actually place those already in poverty in even more poverty," Archer said.
The changes that would occur by using the slower inflation calculation seem modest at first. For a veteran with no dependents who has a 60 percent disability rating, the use of chained CPI this year would have lowered the veteran's monthly payments by $3 a month. Instead of getting $1,026 a month, the veteran would have received $1,023.
Raymond Kelly, legislative director for Veterans of Foreign Wars, acknowledged that veterans would see little change in their income during the first few years of the change. But even a $36 hit over the course of a year is "huge" for many of the disabled veterans living on the edge, he said.
The amount lost over time becomes more substantial as the years go by. Sanders said that a veteran with a 100 percent disability rating who begins getting payments at age 30 would see their annual payments trimmed by more than $2,300 a year when they turn 55.
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.