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Murray leads Senate Democrats calling for equal rights to VA benefits for same-sex couples

July 13, 2022 Updated Wed., July 13, 2022 at 10:42 p.m.

Sen. Patty Murray speaks during a press conference on Thursday, July 7, 2022, at Mann-Grandstaff Medical Center in Spokane, Wash.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
Sen. Patty Murray speaks during a press conference on Thursday, July 7, 2022, at Mann-Grandstaff Medical Center in Spokane, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

WASHINGTON – A group of 41 Democratic senators, led by Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, sent a letter Wednesday calling on the Department of Veterans Affairs to ensure same-sex spouses have access to the same benefits as other couples.

Murray, a member of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, asked VA Secretary Denis McDonough to revisit the cases of same-sex couples who would have qualified for benefits if they had been able to legally marry. Most states didn’t allow same-sex marriage until a 2015 Supreme Court ruling.

“Each of our veterans and their spouses deserve the same quality care and services once they leave the military – no matter who they love,” the senators wrote. “Our veterans and their families, who selflessly served our nation and have sacrificed so much, must be afforded the benefits they have so rightly earned. This is not only a matter of fairness and equity, it is the morally right thing to do.”

The issue came to Murray’s attention in 2015 when her office helped Seattle-area resident Joe Krumbach become the first gay widower in Washington to receive VA spousal benefits. Krumbach’s partner of 19 years, Army veteran Jerry Hatcher, died in 2008, four years before the Washington State Legislature made it legal for gay couples to marry.

Nearly a decade after the Supreme Court ruled in 2013 that denying federal benefits to same-sex couples is unconstitutional, the senators told McDonough they continue to hear from many spouses of deceased veterans who are facing barriers to receiving the VA benefits they are entitled to, including health care, monthly pension payments and help paying for burial costs. To be eligible for those benefits, couples generally need to be married for at least one year.

President Joe Biden signed an executive order in June that directed the Department of Health and Human Services to review barriers to accessing federal benefits and programs based on sexual and gender identity. The order also called for the VA to remove a ban on gender-affirming health care for transgender veterans, but it didn’t mandate action on benefits for same-sex partners.

“In spite of important progress in ensuring that same-sex married couples can access federal programs, many LGBTQI+ families continue to face barriers in accessing vital benefits and services,” a White House fact sheet said, using an acronym that encompasses lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex and other identities.

The Biden administration has taken other steps to make same-sex couples eligible for federal benefits. In November 2021, the Social Security Administration dropped appeals filed during the Trump administration in two class-action lawsuits over survivor benefits, making same-sex spouses eligible to receive Social Security benefits if they can show they were in a committed relationship and would have married if they had been able.

Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, the top Democrat on the Senate VA Committee, notably did not sign the letter. Nearly all other Democratic senators signed, including Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington.

Orion Donovan-Smith's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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