December 16. 2013 8:39PM

Kuster responds to critics of budget deal's impact on vets' pensions

New Hampshire Union Leader

U.S. Rep. Annie Kuster, D-N.H., speaks to David Wiggin, commander of the Dover office of the Disabled American Veterans, during a roundtable discussion Monday in Concord about backlogs for disabled veteran benefits. (MARK HAYWARD/UNION LEADER)

CONCORD — U.S. Rep. Annie Kuster, D-N.H., said she doesn't like to see a reduction in cost-of-living raises in pensions for military veterans, but it is part of an overall bipartisan House budget that avoids a government shutdown or budget sequestration.

The pension issue arose Monday at New Hampshire Technical Institute, where Kuster hosted a roundtable to discuss progress is reducing the backlog in disability claims for veterans.

Daniel Yoder, adjutant of the New Hampshire American Legion, said most federal workers will get cost-of-living raises, but most veterans receiving pensions will see a reduction in their raise.

"It doesn't seem right to me," said Yoder, whose son is in his fourth tour of duty in Afghanistan and would see his pension raises affected by the bill.

"It was not the best provision," Kuster said about the 1-percentage-point reduction in future cost-of-living raises. She said she also disliked the elimination of extensions of unemployement benefits.

"It was not a perfect bill, but the alternative was significantly worse," Kuster told about a half-dozen representatives of veteran service organizations.

She said the budget will avoid budget sequester or a shutdown. A sequester would mean across-the-board cuts for all veteran and active military programs, she said; a shutdown would cause a backlog in veteran disability claims.

According to the Army Times, the House budget deal would save $85 billion over two years, with $6 billion coming from veteran pensions. One percentage point of the pension adjustment — the most recent raise was 1.7 percent — would be reduced for veterans under the age of 62.

The reduction would be phased in over three years, and disability payments would not be cut.The roundtable was the first forum-like appearance for Kuster since Nov. 25, when she was criticized for saying Libya was not part of the Middle East and would not answer questions about the attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi.

Monday's forum featured Veterans Administration officials and leaders of the American Legion, VFW and Disabled American Veterans.

Most discussion centered on the backlog of applications for disability compensation claims. The House has passed a Kuster-sponsored bill to encourage automation to eliminate the backlogs. Kuster said her bill is now in the Senate.

In New Hampshire, the backlog is insignificant, VA officials said. Some 2,800 claims were filed in New Hampshire last year, but 4,000 decisions were made. Bradley Mayes, regional director of Veterans Benefit Administration, said the New Hampshire office is so efficient that it handled 900 claims from Massachusetts last year. This year, it is working on backlogs in Ohio.

"This is a recent change, and we need to make sure it's heading in the right direction," Kuster said.

Meanwhile, several participants said veterans are resisting filing claims related to mental or behavioral problems.

American Legion commander John Barrett said that's especially a problem for veterans who want to go into police work.

They don't want to be labeled as have problems with post-traumatic stress disorder.