VFW.org

H.R. 2018, H.R. 2088, H.R. 2119, H.R. 2529, H.R. 3671, H.R. 3876, H.R. 4095, H.R. 4102, H.R. 4141, and H.R. 4191

STATEMENT OF

RAYMOND C. KELLEY, DIRECTOR 
NATIONAL LEGISLATIVE SERVICE
VETERANS OF FOREIGN WARS OF THE UNITED STATES   

BEFORE THE

VETERANS’ AFFAIRS SUBCOMMITTEE 
ON DISABILITY ASSISTANCE AND MEMORIAL AFFAIRS
UNITED STATES HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES 

WITH RESPECT TO 

H.R. 2018, H.R. 2088, H.R. 2119, H.R. 2529, H.R.  3671, H.R. 3876, H.R. 4095, H.R. 4102, H.R. 4141, and H.R. 4191   

WASHINGTON, D.C.                                                                                        MARCH 26, 2014

MR. CHAIRMAN AND MEMBERS OF THE SUBCOMMITTEE: 

On behalf of the men and women of the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States (VFW) and our Auxiliaries, I would like to thank you for the opportunity to testify on today’s pending legislation.

The VFW supports H.R. 2018, with recommendations:

The VFW supports revising 38 CFR 38.632  to allow agencies outside a veteran’s or descendant’s next-of-kin (NOK) to request a headstone or grave marker from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to commemorate an eligible veteran. The VFW encourages the Committee to ensure federal policy properly balances the desires of the veteran’s family and those who seek to appropriately memorialize those who served, with the religious beliefs of the veteran.

On July 1, 2009, the VA redefined who may apply for a government-furnished headstone or marker for an eligible veteran or family member. The VA’s newest definition limits eligibility to apply for a headstone or marker to the NOK or a descendant of the NOK. The VFW appreciates the intent behind the regulation, which ensures that family members are included in the decision-making process for memorializing loved ones. However, the VFW also believes that deceased veterans deserve marked and well-maintained grave sites in the absence of NOK or descendants. To balance these two notions, the VFW recommends the Committee make two changes to the bill’s language:

First, the VFW suggests language should be included that affords the descendants of veterans who served during WWI or in previous wars the right to have a headstone or marker removed or replaced if it was not requested by NOK. As written, the legislation provides that “any person” may request a headstone or marker for a veteran who served on active duty 62 years prior to the request date for a marker. This language would permit an historian to request a headstone for a veteran who dies in 2014, but who served in Korea 63 years ago, without the consent of the veteran’s family. The VFW believes it is safe to presume that those who served during WWII and after still have living children or grandchildren who should be consulted before a marker is ordered.  However, an outside agent should be permitted to request a headstone or marker for any veteran if the applicant can prove the veteran has no direct living descendants.

Second, the VFW urges the committee to ensure the legislation does not imply that an “emblem of belief” is required to be included on a headstone or marker. Currently, the legislation reads that “in the case of a request for a headstone or marker under this section for a decedent for whom insufficient information exists regarding the religious beliefs of the individual… the person requesting the headstone or marker may request a headstone or marker without an emblem of belief” (EOB). The VFW believes that any outside agency must prove that the veteran desired an EOB on his or her headstone or marker before a request for an EOB is granted, unless otherwise approved by a descendant of the veteran. This change will ensure the religious freedoms of the veteran are honored.

The VFW supports the intent of H.R. 2088, but has concerns:

The VFW appreciates the idea to boost support for the best performing regional offices in order to focus additional attention on the most complex and time-consuming medical conditions, which is intended to reduce processing times and error rates of disability claims. However, the VFW is concerned that the pilot may have unintended consequences, mainly the adverse effect it could have on Veterans Service Organization’s (VSO) representation activities.  

The Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) now has the technological tools to assess the capacity of offices to handle more work and move work to those locations. The VBA is already increasingly transferring cases from offices with high workloads to those more capable of processing the work more quickly—as would occur under this legislation. It makes sense that as the VA “brokers” more claims or parts of claims, they identify specific regional offices to adjudicate complicated medical conditions, as this legislation seeks to achieve.

However, we know that shifting claims away from the veterans’ geographic area has unintended consequences. Brokering can interfere with VSO representational activity, which benefits from the close proximity between service officers and VA personnel. Such proximity allows for problems to be fixed quickly and informally, helping veterans avoid unnecessary appeals and receive benefits quicker. Currently, service officers have no ability to identify which cases have been brokered or the status of those cases unless they search cases one by one. We urge Congress to develop policies which mitigate the negative effects of brokering.

Before this or a similar pilot moves forward, VA must devise adequate workload management tools for VSOs. VSOs need to receive electronic notification of work performed on claims, and unfettered access to electronic claim files, and access to the VA personnel handling the brokered work. It is critical that the pilot does not leave VSO service officers behind.

The VFW supports H.R. 2119, with recommendations:

The VFW believes that video teleconferencing (VTC) should be the default method for hearings before the Board of Veterans’ Appeals. Although conducting hearings through VTC will expedite the adjudication of claims and eliminate substantial travel costs to the veteran and VA, we feel strongly that veterans should have the opportunity to elect to attend the hearing in person. We recommend the committee amend the bill to indicate that the VA must notify the veteran of his or her right to an in-person hearing and “shall” grant such a request.

The VFW supports H.R. 2529, with a recommendation:

The bill amends Title 38 to ensure all veterans have equal access to VA benefits. We recommend that the Committee amend section 103(c) of such title by striking ‘‘according to’’ and all that follows to the period at the end and inserting ‘‘in accordance with section 101(31)” of this amendment title; otherwise, the rest of the legislation is moot. With this amendment, the VFW supports the bill.  

The VFW supports H.R. 3671:

Currently, VA may furnish a medallion on a headstone or marker for graves that are marked with a private headstone or marker for veterans who died on or after November 1, 1990. This bill rightfully expands this honor to all veterans regardless of their date of death. The VFW fully supports the legislation.

The VFW opposes H.R. 3876:

The VFW believes that all veterans should be buried in an honorable manner that is reflective of the individual’s sacrifice, regardless of their financial situation. The VFW has provided over a thousand qualified homeless veterans with honorable burials in VA or state cemeteries free of charge, with assistance from Dignity Memorial’s Homeless Veterans Burial Program.  
The VFW appreciates the intent of H.R. 3876, which seeks to ensure homeless veterans are buried with honor by establishing a grant program within the VA for burial of homeless veterans. This bill would allow private companies to be reimbursed for all interment costs of eligible homeless veterans, including the preparation of the body, transportation, clothing, casket and coordination of the funeral service. The VFW believes this to be unnecessary, and would cause a disparity in benefits between veterans with no next of kin and those with families.  

Thanks to the work of this committee, VA coordinates interment with local medical examiners and agencies, to ensure that eligible veterans with no next-of-kin are laid properly to rest in one of VA’s 131 national cemeteries. The VA will partially reimburse families or funeral homes for burial and funeral costs of any eligible veteran. In cases where there is no next-of-kin, the VA provides a casket, urn, or another acceptable burial container. In addition, eligible veterans receive a gravesite at any national cemetery with available space, opening and closing of the grave, perpetual care, a headstone or marker, a burial flag, and a Presidential Memorial Certificate, at no cost. The VFW does not believe the VA should grant additional memorial benefits to a veteran based on the individual’s personal circumstances.

The VFW believes that the current memorial benefits are sufficient to ensure a dignified burial for any veteran, including homeless veterans, with one exception. As of January 10, 2014, the VA can no longer pay the cost of transporting the remains of certain deceased veterans to State, Tribal, or private cemeteries. The VFW believes the Committee should expand VA’s current authority to pay for the cost of transporting the remains of certain deceased veterans to the closest National cemetery for burial to include transportation for burials in a State or Tribal cemetery, and a private cemetery when appropriate. 

The VFW strongly supports H.R. 4095:

Disabled veterans, as well as their surviving spouses and children, depend on their disability and dependency and indemnity compensation to bridge the gap of lost earnings and savings that their disability has caused. Each year, veterans wait anxiously to find out if they will receive a cost-of-living adjustment (COLA). There is no automatic trigger that increases these forms of compensation for veterans and their dependents. Annually, veterans wait for Congress to provide the same adjustment that is automatic to Social Security and other Federal beneficiaries. 

The VFW supports this legislation that will bring parity to VA disability and survivor recipients’ compensation by providing a COLA beginning December 1, 2014, so long as VA disability, pension, and survivor benefits continue to be calculated with the currently used Consumer Price Index–W and not be adjusted to the Chained Consumer Price Index. 

The VFW strongly supports H.R. 4102:

H.R. 4102 will allow payments issued on the date of the veteran’s death to be awarded to the veteran’s estate, consistent with general principles of estate law.

Sometimes, disability claims are not approved by VA until after the claimant dies.  In 2013, the VA paid $437 million in retroactive benefits to survivors of nearly 19,500 veterans who died while waiting for benefits. This represents a dramatic increase from 2000, when the widows, parents, and children of fewer than 6,400 veterans were paid $7.9 million for claims filed before their loved one’s death. Long wait times are contributing to tens of thousands of veterans being approved for disability benefits only after they are dead.

To make matters worse, under current law, only a veteran’s spouse, children under the age of 18, and parents are eligible to receive retroactive VA disability benefits compensation in the event of a veteran claimant’s death. This means veterans who have fought VA until their death, over benefits they earned with their service, are unable to pass their benefits to their adult children. In many cases, the adult children act as the veteran’s caregiver, and should be entitled to the veteran’s disability benefit if the veteran dies before ever receiving compensation from VA.

The VFW supports the intent of H.R. 4141:

Beginning in 1991, Congress authorized VA to enter into Enhanced-Use Leases (EUL) to better serve our Nation’s veterans. Through EUL cooperative arrangements with other public and private entities, VA transformed empty and underutilized property into constructive projects that contribute to VA’s mission. However, when Congress extended VA’s EUL authority in 2012, Congress limited VA’s leasing authority to only building supportive housing.

The limited EUL authority impedes VA’s capacity to enter into a wide variety of contracts that would benefit veterans, including the ability of organizations to build veterans memorials on National Cemetery Administration (NCA) property. While the VFW agrees that NCA should have the ability to enter in EULs for the purposes of constructing memorials, as this legislation would do, the VFW believes that Congress should give the entire Department the authority to enter into innovative public or private agreements.

The VFW strongly supports H.R. 4191:

Consistent with the Independent Budget co-authored by the VFW, we believe Congress should immediately “pass legislation to require that private medical evidence be given due deference when it is competent, credible, probative, and otherwise adequate for rating purposes.”

Undersecretary Hickey has taken significant action in recent years to ensure VA Regional Offices break down bureaucratic hurdles that veterans face when applying for benefits, including maximizing the use of private medical evidence. The VBA eliminated work credit for VA Rating Specialists who request superfluous compensation medical exams. For this reason, VA may claim the legislation is “unnecessary and duplicative.” However, we have found that some employees still resist giving private medical evidence the same weight as VA medical evidence.

To further support efforts to encourage the use of private medical evidence, Congress should amend title 38, section 5103A(d)(1) to provide that, when a claimant provides private medical evidence adequate for rating purposes, the Secretary shall not request a VA medical examination. This will encourage the VBA to make greater use of private medical evidence when making claims decisions, which would help eliminate the months that veterans spend waiting for medical examinations; and also save the VHA the cost of unnecessary examinations, and reducing appointment wait times, making this a win-win for both VA and veterans. 

Mr. Chairman, this concludes my testimony, and I look forward to answering any questions you and the subcommittee may have.

Information Required by Rule XI2(g)(4) of the House of Representatives

Pursuant to Rule XI2(g)(4) of the House of Representatives, VFW has not received any federal grants in Fiscal Year 2013, nor has it received any federal grants in the two previous Fiscal Years.

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