RIDGEFIELD PARK, NEW JERSEY - JULY 4: World War 2 veteran, Joseph Schneider, 90 years, stands for a photograph July 4, 2014 in the Independence Day parade in Ridgefield Park, New Jersey. Schneider served in the U.S. Navy in Pacific Ocean theater. Ridgefield Park has the oldest Fourth of July parade in New Jersey. The United States marks 238 years as an independent nation as it celebrates the national holiday. (Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)
RIDGEFIELD PARK, NEW JERSEY - JULY 4: Korean War veteran George Bruzgis, right, speaks with a fellow veteran July 4, 2014 in the Independence Day parade in Ridgefield Park, New Jersey. Bruzgis is national director of the Korean War Veterans Association. Ridgefield Park has the oldest Fourth of July parade in New Jersey. The United States marks 238 years as an independent nation as it celebrates the national holiday. (Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - NOVEMBER 11: It's Veterans' Day, a national holidy, and at the WWII memorial: Pictured, the Reverend Dr. Rufus Jackson, Sr., right, a veteran of the Pacific theater in WWII, joins with Aloysius Albritton, left, and members of his church in a commemoration ceremony at the memorial. They have all come up from Virginia Beach, VA for this Veterans' Day celebration. (Photo by Bill O'Leary/Washington Post/Getty Images)
RIDGEFIELD PARK, NEW JERSEY - JULY 4: Korean War veteran George Bruzgis displays his Korean War medals July 4, 2014 in the Independence Day parade in Ridgefield Park, New Jersey. Bruzgis is national director of the Korean War Veterans Association. Ridgefield Park has the oldest Fourth of July parade in New Jersey. The United States marks 238 years as an independent nation as it celebrates the national holiday. (Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)
BAYEUX, FRANCE - JUNE 06: Normandy veterans attend a parade at Arrowmanches-Les-Bains during D-Day 70 Commemorations on June 6, 2014 near Bayeux, France. Friday 6th June is the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings which saw 156,000 troops from the allied countries including the United Kingdom and the United States join forces to launch an audacious attack on the beaches of Normandy, these assaults are credited with the eventual defeat of Nazi Germany. A series of events commemorating the 70th anniversary are planned for the week with many heads of state travelling to the famous beaches to pay their respects to those who lost their lives (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)
NEW YORK CITY, NY, UNITED STATES - NOVEMBER 11: Participants march during the annual Veterans Day parade to honor U.S. military and the U.S. Armed Services Special Forces at 5th Avenue on November 11, 2013 in New York City, USA. This year the annual parade is dedicated to especially women members of the armed forces. (Photo by Cem Ozdel/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - NOVEMBER 08: Rosalen Becker, seated left, William Schoenmuller, seated center, were grand marshals of the first Middle Village Veteran's Day Parade, held Sunday on Metropolitan ave. Honorary Chair, former State Sen, Serphin Maltese, right and Becker's son James, a retired Army Veteran left, saluted during 'Taps' (Photo by David Handschuh/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - NOVEMBER 08: People watch the first Middle Village Veteran's Day Parade, held Sunday on Metropolitan Ave. in Middle Village, Queens. (Photo by David Handschuh/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - NOVEMBER 11: Veteran's Day parade marches up Fifth Ave from 23rd to 56th st Tuesday. (Photo by David Handschuh/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - MAY 28: Veterans, from left, Isaac Dickman, Phillip Pawlisz and Edward Schnug share a laugh waiting for the procession of the Honor Guard to begin during the National Memorial Day Observance held at Arlington National Cemetery, Monday, May 28, 2007, in Arlington, Virginia. (Photo by Jamie Rose/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
AURORA, UNITED STATES: Veteran Post 103 Commander George Carlsen (L) leads his post in the Veterans Day Parade 11 November, 2003, to celebrate Veterans of Foreign Wars in Aurora, Illinois. The day also marks the end of World War I. AFP PHOTO/Jeff HAYNES (Photo credit should read JEFF HAYNES/AFP/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - NOVEMBER 11: World War II veteran Fred Castles, 75, weeps during playing of the National Anthem at end of the Veterans Day Parade at Broadway and 24th St. (Photo by Evy Mages/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - NOVEMBER 11: Korean War vets march up Fifth Ave. in the 84th annual Veterans Day Parade. (Photo by Susan Watts/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
AURORA, UNITED STATES: Veteran Post 103 Commander George Carlsen salutes the flag during the National Anthem after the Veterans Day Parade 11 November, 2003, in Aurora, Illinois. Veteran's Day is celebrated through out the United States every year on 11 November, which also marks the end of World War I. AFP PHOTO/Jeff HAYNES (Photo credit should read JEFF HAYNES/AFP/Getty Images)
NYC's 2004 Veteran's Day Parade at 5th Avenue in New York City, New York, United States. (Photo by James Devaney/WireImage)
Vietnam War veteran Armen D. Ross, 63, from Los Angeles reads his Bible on top of his his father's grave, Armen Ross Jr., a World War II veteran, at the Los Angeles National Cemetery Monday, Nov. 11, 2013. His grandfather, Armen Ross also fought in World War I. Across the nation, Americans are commemorating Veterans Day with parades, wreath-laying ceremonies and monument dedications. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)
Iraq War veteran, James Oliver visits his grandfather's grave, who fought on WWII, at the Los Angeles National Cemetery Monday, Nov. 11, 2013. Across the nation, Americans are commemorating Veterans Day with parades, wreath-laying ceremonies and monument dedications. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)
Holding a sign, Loretta Knapp, of the Bronx borough of New York, second from right, waves as she and others watch as the Veterans Day Parade makes it's way up New York's Fifth Avenue Sunday Nov. 11, 2012. (AP Photo/Tina Fineberg)
Vietnam veteran Brian Delate, center, chats with French war veterans Joseph Crouzilhat, left, and Pierre Martinez, as he ties a yellow ribbon to the tree that survived the terror attack, during the Veterans Day observance at the 9/11 Memorial, in New York, Saturday, Nov. 10, 2012. On the eve of the Veterans Day parade, at the 9/11 Memorial at the World Trade Center, a wreath was laid near the tree, which thrives more than a decade after it emerged from the smoking rubble. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)
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WASHINGTON (AP) - Nearly 60,000 veterans were triple dippers last year, drawing a total of $3.5 billion in military retirement pay plus veterans and Social Security disability benefits at the same time, congressional auditors report.
It's all legal.
The average payment was about $59,000, but about 2,300 veterans, or 4 percent of the total, received concurrent payments of $100,000 or more, the Government Accountability Office said.
The highest payment was to a veteran who received $208,757 in combined payments in 2013.
Some lawmakers say the report shows the need for better coordination among government programs that are facing severe financial constraints. The Social Security Disability Insurance trust fund could run out of money in as soon as two years, government officials say.
"We should fulfill our promises to the men and women who serve, but we need to streamline these duplicative programs," said Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who requested the study.
Veterans groups disagree. They say the retirement money was earned for years of service in the military, while disability payments are compensation for service-related injuries and wounds.
In most cases, veterans who receive a combination of benefits are severely disabled. About 4 in 5 veterans who got triple payments had a disability rating of at least 50 percent, the GAO said. Nearly half of those receiving triple payments were at least 60 years old.
Louis Celli Jr., a Washington representative for the American Legion, said critics of the multiple benefits are "misguided and uninformed." He said the report "should simply be filed in the category of one of Sen. Coburn's parting shots to loyal upstanding American patriots who have sacrificed so much for this country."
Coburn, a longtime critic of government spending, is retiring at the end of the year. He said in an interview that the report raises legitimate questions about whether disability benefits are getting to those who truly need them.
"This is billions of dollars a year in duplicative payments," Coburn said. "We ought to reassess and say, 'Are we doing more than take care of people in need?' I'm not against the military. I don't think they should be triple dipping."
Most Americans would find it hard to understand how someone making $86,000 a year in tax-exempt VA income qualifies for Social Security Disability Insurance, when civilian workers are disqualified from the program if they make as little as $13,000 a year, Coburn said.
Only 17 percent of those who received multiple forms of compensation had suffered a combat-related disability, according to the GAO.
Veterans have long been exempted from rules that deny Social Security benefits to anyone with other income exceeding $13,000 a year.
But until the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, veterans were barred from receiving both military retirement pay and Department of Veterans Affairs' disability benefits. Under a Civil War-era statute, the Pentagon docked retirement pay dollar-for-dollar up to the amount of disability benefits from the VA.
With bipartisan support, Congress changed that law in 2002, gradually restoring military retirement pay to veterans also drawing disability benefits from the VA.
"Our nation's status as the world's only superpower is largely due to the sacrifices our veterans made in the last century," Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., said in March 2002 when the bill was being debated.
"Rather than honoring their commitment and bravery by fulfilling our obligations, the federal government has chosen to perpetuate this longstanding injustice," Reid said. "Quite simply, this is disgraceful and we must correct it."
At the time, then-Sen. John Warner, R-Va., a former Navy secretary, posed a question to fellow senators: "How can we ask the men and women who have so faithfully served to sacrifice a portion of their retirement because they are also receiving compensation for an injury suffered while serving their country?"
Warner acknowledged that the change would have "significant cost," but added; "Is the cost too high? I think not."
About 3 percent of the nation's 1.9 million military retirees collect all three benefits, the GAO said.
The report did not recommend changes to the program. The VA said in a response that it "generally agrees" with the report's conclusions. Social Security officials did not comment.