Hearing Transcript on Legislative Hearing on H.R. 3047, H.R. 3249, H.R. 3286, H.R. 3415, H.R. 1137, H.R. 3954, and H.R. 4084.
LEGISLATIVE HEARING ON H.R. 1137, H.R. 3047, H.R. 3249, H.R. 3286, H.R. 3415, H.R. 3954, AND H.R. 4084
SUBCOMMITTEE ON DISABILITY ASSISTANCE AND MEMORIAL AFFAIRS
COMMITTEE ON VETERANS' AFFAIRS
U.S. HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES
ONE HUNDRED TENTH CONGRESS
NOVEMBER 8, 2007
SERIAL No. 110-60
Printed for the use of the Committee on Veterans' Affairs
U.S. GOVERNMENT PRINTING OFFICE
For sale by the Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office
CORRINE BROWN, Florida
STEVE BUYER, Indiana, Ranking
Malcom A. Shorter, Staff Director
SUBCOMMITTEE ON DISABILITY ASSISTANCE AND MEMORIAL AFFAIRS
Pursuant to clause 2(e)(4) of Rule XI of the Rules of the House, public hearing records of the Committee on Veterans' Affairs are also published in electronic form. The printed hearing record remains the official version. Because electronic submissions are used to prepare both printed and electronic versions of the hearing record, the process of converting between various electronic formats may introduce unintentional errors or omissions. Such occurrences are inherent in the current publication process and should diminish as the process is further refined.
C O N T E N T S
November 8, 2007
Legislative Hearing on H.R. 1137, H.R. 3047, H.R. 3249, H.R. 3286, H.R. 3415, H.R. 3954, and H.R. 4084
American Legion, Steve Smithson, Deputy Director, Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation Commission
Prepared statement of Mr. Smithson
Brown, Jr., Hon. Henry E., a Representative in Congress from the State of South Carolina
Prepared statement of Congressman Brown
Filner, Hon. Bob, Chairman, Full Committee on Veterans' Affairs, and a Representative in Congress from the State of California
Paralyzed Veterans of America, Richard Daley, Associate Legislation Director
Prepared statement of Mr. Daley
SUBMISSIONS FOR THE RECORD
American Veterans (AMVETS), Raymond C. Kelley, National Legislative Director, statement
Disabled American Veterans, Kerry Baker, Associate National Legislative Director, statement
Gold Star Wives of America, Inc., Rose Elizabeth Lee, Chair, Government Relations Committee, statement
Langevin, Hon. James, a Representative in Congress from the State of Rhode Island, statement
National Funeral Directors Association, Lesley Witter, Director of Political Affairs, letter
National Veterans Legal Services Program, Ronald B. Abrams, Joint Executive Director, statement
MATERIAL SUBMITTED FOR THE RECORD
Hon. James B. Peake, M.D., Secretary, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, to Hon. Bob Filner, Chairman, Committee on Veterans' Affairs, letter dated March 6, 2008, transmitting Administration views for H.R. 4084.
LEGISLATIVE HEARING ON H.R. 1137, H.R. 3047, H.R. 3249, H.R. 3286, H.R. 3415, H.R. 3954, AND H.R. 4084
Thursday, November 8, 2007
U. S. House of Representatives,
Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs,
Committee on Veterans' Affairs,
The Subcommittee met, pursuant to notice, at 2:01 p.m., in Room 334, Cannon House Office Building, Hon. John J. Hall [Chairman of the Subcommittee] presiding.
Present: Representatives Hall, Berkley, Lamborn and Turner.
Also Present: Representatives Filner and Brown of South Carolina.
Mr. HALL. Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. The Committee on Veterans' Affairs, Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs, will come to order for a legislative hearing on H.R. 3047, H.R. 3249, H.R. 3286, H.R. 3415, H.R. 1137, H.R. 3954, and H.R. 4084.
Before we begin, I ask unanimous consent that Congressman Filner and Congressman Brown be invited to sit at the dais and prevent their testimony for the Subcommittee hearing today.
Hearing no objection, so ordered.
Congressman Filner and Congressman Brown, welcome.
Good afternoon, and I would ask that we all rise for the Pledge of Allegiance. Flags are at either end of the room.
[Pledge of Allegiance.]
Mr. LAMBORN. Mr. Chairman, are we presenting or preventing their appearance?
Mr. HALL. I misspoke. They are presenting their testimony.
First of all, thank you to all the witnesses for your testimony on these seven noncontroversial but critical bills concerning memorial benefits, pensions and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) claims processing system. I would specifically like to thank my colleagues, Mr. Filner, the Chairman of the full Committee; Ranking Member Lamborn; Ms. Berkley; Mr. Langevin; and Mr. Brown for joining us today. I look forward to hearing their testimony on their respective legislation.
Four of the bills that we will consider today address the memorial assistance and death benefits provided to the families of our veterans. At these times of grief, it is important that we honor our veterans' service and sacrifice.
Due to the current deployment schedule of our active-duty troops and the aging of our veterans from previous conflicts, it has become increasingly difficult to ensure military presence for proper honors details at veterans' funerals. The "Providing Military Honors for Our Nation's Heroes Act," H.R. 3954, introduced by Chairman Filner, attempts to increase the number of details available to veterans' families and help ensure that the proper honor is provided at veterans' burials. This legislation would authorize the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to reimburse volunteers from approved organizations for expenses incurred while providing these vital ceremonial duties.
The "Veterans Burial Benefits Improvement Act of 2007," H.R. 3249, introduced by my colleague from Nevada, Ms. Berkley, would increase burial allowances and plot allowances for both service-connected and non-service-connected veterans. This legislation allows for annual adjustments to ensure that these benefits will continue to keep pace with rising funeral and burial costs, ensuring that all of our veterans can be interred in a proper and respectful manner.
H.R. 3415, introduced by Mr. Langevin, aims to assist family members of those buried in the American Battle Monument Commission cemeteries abroad by providing them with a remembrance of their loved one on U.S. soil. As it may prove difficult for family members to travel to these overseas grave sites, this legislation would authorize memorial markers for this limited population of servicemembers, which could then be placed in national veterans' cemeteries closer to home.
Today, we will also consider the appropriateness of current law regarding Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC). H.R. 3286, also introduced by Chairman Filner, will shorten the time period under section 1318 of title 38, United States Code, for which a veteran with a service-connected injury must be rated continuously totally disabled immediately preceding his or her death before the veterans' survivors are eligible for DIC benefits from 10 years to 1 year.
Given the current backlog of pending claims, veterans wait years, even decades, to receive their final rating. In the case of totally disabled veterans, the resulting benefits may, unfortunately, come too late. These delays should not negate our responsibilities to these veterans' families, and this legislation will ensure that their survivors receive the benefits due to them.
We will also hear testimony on updating the Special Pension awarded to Medal of Honor recipients and their spouses. H.R. 1137, introduced by Mr. Brown, would increase this Special Pension to $2,000 per month from $1,104. This pension was last adjusted in 2006, but the acts of these extraordinary veterans, currently 109 living, resulted in the receipt of our highest military honor, and the benefits that we provide to them should reflect nothing less.
Today we will also consider the VA claims processing system and address two pieces of legislation that seek to make the process more efficient and more effective for our Nation's veterans. Ranking Member Lamborn introduced the Veterans Claims Processing Innovation Act of 2007, H.R. 3047, which among other things seeks to increase the effectiveness of claims filing and addresses the VA's work credit system. I look forward to hearing more about this bill.
Lastly, the "Veterans Quality of Life Study Act of 2007," H.R. 4084, which I recently introduced, would take an important step toward opening the dialogue in this Subcommittee to examine one of the ground-breaking recommendations set forth by the Veterans' Disability Benefits Commission, the Institute of Medicine and the President's Commission on Care for America's Returning Wounded Warriors regarding quality of life. Answering the call of these recommendations, this legislation would require the VA to commission a study to determine whether, to what extent and how its disability rating system should compensate veterans for the loss of quality of life these impairments impose on their lives.
This legislation also seeks to allow substitution of claimants, ensuring that eligible family members can take the place of a veteran in the event of his or her death in the disability claims processing system and not have to begin the process all over again.
Lastly, this bill would expand the categories of reporting requirements of the annual report of the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims (CAVC) that would further assist Congress in analyzing and addressing the CAVC's workload and backlog. The last provision deals with the concerns the CAVC has raised here about space allocation and the proposed construction of a Veterans Courthouse and Justice Center.
During times of war such as our Nation is experiencing today, we must simultaneously ensure the proper compensation and support for our current veterans while also creating and implementing innovative solutions that will allow us to care for those who will become veterans, I look forward to hearing from the veterans service organizations (VSOs) and the VA's representatives on these bills.
Mr. HALL. Thank you very much, and I now recognize Ranking Member Lamborn for his opening statement.
[The statement of Chairman Hall appears in the Appendix.]
Mr. LAMBORN. Thank you, Mr. Chairman, for yielding; and I thank you and your staff for holding this hearing today. I requested it earlier in the session, and I commend your bipartisanship in holding it today.
This afternoon, we are considering several pieces of legislation, all of which are of interest and potential value. While I am currently not opposed to any of the proposed legislation, I am concerned about the mandatory offsets that would be necessary to pass some of these bills under PAYGO rules. That being said, I look forward to hearing more about these bills from our colleagues and from the other witnesses who are with us here today.
Mr. Chairman, I would like to focus the rest of my statement on discussing the bill I introduced, H.R. 3047, the "Veterans Claims Processing Innovation Act of 2007." This bill has the bipartisan support of 32 cosponsors and is supported by many of our witnesses here today.
H.R. 3047 will bring VA's compensation and pension system into the 21st century. By increasing accountability and leveraging technology at the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA), this bill would improve the accuracy, and speed of benefits claims processing. Section two of the bill will require VA to create a new system for claims processors to acquire credit for their work. One way to reduce the disability compensation backlog is to ensure that VA adjudicators rate the claim correctly the first time.
While I believe that the system described in section two will help achieve this goal, I am open to other suggestions that will ensure that VA adjudicators focus on accuracy as well as speed. As I have said before, most veterans would rather wait a few more days for their claim to be adjudicated correctly the first time, than having it to be adjudicated quickly and have it be wrong.
Section three of my bill would require VA to establish a pilot program to create a regional Office of the Future where all claims would be processed electronically. Mr. Chairman, we have heard from numerous witnesses at several hearings during this session that processing claims electronically is the way of the future and could help prevent future VBA backlogs.
After several questions and concerns were raised about this section, I was happy to work with veterans service organizations, and the majority staff, to create the amendment in the nature of a substitute for H.R. 3047 that I will offer when this bill is marked up. I want to make it clear that this provision would only establish a pilot program for electronic claims processing to aid VBA employees with their adjudication and would not replace them.
Section four of the bill would allow substitution of family members for a deceased veteran for the purposes of acquiring accrued benefits for which they are due. I am happy to see that a similar provision was included in your bill, Mr. Chairman; and I look forward to working with you on this important measure.
The final section of my bill would require VA to use a reputable private entity to evaluate its quality assurance and training programs. While I understand and support VA's current attempt to centralize and improve training, I would like an independent organization to verify that they are on the right path.
Mr. Chairman, I am very disappointed in the testimony from VA on H.R. 3047. I understand that this bill is not perfect. But rather than offering a simple out-of-hand dismissal of the bill, I would have appreciated constructive input from them on how to perfect this legislation to improve the system.
My staff has asked VA numerous times for ways that we could help them improve this outdated system with little response. That is why I am happy to read about the three initiatives in their testimony which seem to be moving in this direction.
I am committed to working with you, Mr. Chairman, with the VA and with other stakeholders to perfect legislation that will revolutionize the disability compensation system and bring it in line with modern technology. I would like to thank the veterans service organizations for their support of this legislation, and I suggest to my colleagues that they also read the testimonies from American Veterans (AMVETS) and Mr. Ron Abrams of the National Veterans Legal Services Program (NVLSP) who both support H.R. 3047 but were unable to be with us today but have submitted for the record.
Mr. Chairman, I extend my thanks to you and your staff for holding this hearing; and I look forward to hearing the testimony of our colleagues and the other witnesses today. And I yield back.
[The statement of Congressman Lamborn appears in the Appendix.]
Mr. HALL. Thank you, Mr. Lamborn.
Welcome to the club of those who have had, shall I say, negative comments to their legislation submitted by the VA. But I am sure that that is not the whole story and that there is a constructive side to come, to be revealed.
Now I would like to recognize the Chairman of the full Committee on Veterans' Affairs , Mr. Filner, for remarks on his legislation or anything else.
Mr. FILNER. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
I am president of that club, by the way. You are mere freshmen. They have been tearing apart my stuff for 15 years.
Thank you, Mr. Hall, for your leadership of this Subcommittee, and Mr. Lamborn, for your energetic work on this. Together, you have done an incredible amount of work this year; and you are going to do even more in the coming year, I am sure. This Subcommittee is going to be at the focus of the changes that have been recommended by the Dole-Shalala Commission and the Veterans’ Disability Benefits Commission.
The President asked the Chairmen and Ranking Members of the House and Senate Veterans' Affairs Committees and Armed Service Committees to meet with him on these issues last week, and I think we all agree that a lot of the Dole-Shalala Commission recommendations could be passed very quickly. But the recommendation on the wholesale change in the disability system needs a much more detailed look. And I think there was general agreement to that.
For example, creating a two-tiered system, as they recommend, can lead to other problems. So I think you have to carefully consider that with some detail. I am committed to them and said to the press today that we would be very aggressive between now and, say, February to do the work that we have to do to change that system. I think we need to cut through the backlog and then move toward that new system, if that is the best as quickly as we can, given whatever changes we want to make to that.
I just want to talk to you briefly about two bills that are on your agenda today. One, H.R. 3286, is legislation to reduce the period of time for which a veteran must be totally disabled before the veteran's survivors are eligible for VA benefits at the time of the veteran's death.
Currently, in order for surviving spouses and children to be eligible for VA dependency indemnity compensation, known as DIC, the veteran who is disabled must have been rated totally disabled for at least 5 years immediately preceding the death from the date of discharge or other release from active duty, and must have been rated totally disabled for at least 10 years immediately preceding the death. There are other kinds of requirements for former prisoners of war who died after September 30, 1999, and on and on. And that is just a summary of the legalese that is in the regulations. It is very arbitrary, very difficult to understand; and the waiting periods can deny benefits and create an unbelievable hardship for many widows and children.
We should be in the business—and I know you will agree—of helping veterans and their families and not as being as miserly as Scrooge might be. Too often, in our current system, the welfare of veterans and their families is ignored and promises made to veterans when they sign to serve are forgotten.
This bill would eliminate the various categories and would shorten restricted time limits to one year for all deaths occurring after the enactment of this bill. The benefits will continue to go only to children born before the death of the veteran, and that is just to keep in mind as you go through H.R. 3286.
H.R. 3954, the "Providing Military Honors for Our Nation's Heroes Act," would provide reimbursement to members of VSOs and other approved groups who volunteer to provide funeral honors details at the funerals of veterans. I am sure all of us have confronted a situation of a funeral without proper honors or with volunteers who would like to do it but don't have any reimbursement for their car expenses or uniform or ammunition or whatever they feel they need; and they want to be at these funerals. We ought to help them be there.
As you know, thousands of servicemembers from World War II and the Korean War die each day, and there is not enough military to provide a proper set of personal honors for these funerals. Some families have to make do just with a CD playing "Taps;" and it is a very sad and outrageous situation when that occurs. And I hope that this Congress will take action to help provide proper military funeral honors for all families who request them.
Currently, the members of VSOs voluntarily assist the military by providing a color guard, pallbearers, a bugler or firing party, but the law does not address ceremonies in which VSOs render honors without military representation. My bill will allow reimbursement to volunteers who have been approved by the Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs. Transportation costs, uniform cleaning costs, ammunition incurred in providing such honors details will be reimbursed.
And a second change in the law will allow reimbursements to details that are requested by funeral homes and the VA as well as by the Department of Defense (DoD), which is the current practice. So we could have volunteers be reimbursed if this legislation passes when no military person is a part of the honor guard, this increases the number of honor details available to our families.
So these two may be small bills but they will demonstrate that we in Congress know and understand the hardships of our Nation's veterans and their family members.
Mr. Chairman, thank you for allowing me to explain these bills; and I look forward to working with you to move them forward.
Mr. HALL. Thank you, Mr. Chairman; and I also look forward to hearing testimony on your two bills.
Sitting here in a chair that you usually occupy, I am wondering if you have ever used this button that says "mute all" on it. In our Subcommittee, we haven't had the occasion to use the mute all button yet.
Mr. FILNER. It has been used, but you haven't noticed it.
Mr. HALL. Mr. Brown, would you like to be recognized now to tell us about your bill?
Mr. BROWN. Thank you, Mr. Chairman and Ranking Member Lamborn. We appreciate the opportunity to come before you, and thanks for letting me sit on the dais up here and be here with the chairman.
I am glad to be with you, Mr. Chairman; and I thank you for allowing me to testify today before the Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs on H.R. 1137, which would increase the Medal of Honor Special Pension. This bill, which I have worked on with my colleague Mr. Michaud in both the 109th and 110th Congress, seeks to further recognize the bravery and exceptional service of the recipients of the Medal of Honor.
The Medal of Honor is the highest military declaration awarded by the United States of America. It is awarded for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity of the risk of life, above and beyond the call of duty, in actual combat against an armed enemy force. Since its initial presentation to Private Jacob Parrott in 1863, 3,445 Americans have been awarded the Medal of Honor.
Today, there are 109 living recipients of the Medal of Honor. The average age of a living recipient is 74 years old, and 47 percent of recipients earned their medals more than 50 years ago while serving in World War II and Korea. The oldest living recipient, John W. Finn, is 98 years old. He received his medal for action during the attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941. In addition to Mr. Finn, 34 other living recipients are World War II veterans.
Sixty-one living recipients of the Medal of Honor earned their medals while serving in Vietnam, including my good friend General James Livingston. At this time, I would like to thank General Livingston not only for his heroic service to our country during the Vietnam War, but also for his tireless work on behalf of American veterans in the years since.
The most recent Medal of Honor was awarded posthumously on October 22, 2007, to Lieutenant Michael Murphy, a Navy SEAL recognized for his service in Afghanistan. Lieutenant Murphy is the second Medal of Honor recipient from the current Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. Marine Corporal Jason L. Dunham was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his action in Iraq in 2004.
In recognition of their exceptional service, Medal of Honor recipients are entitled to a Special Pension, as first authorized by the Congress in 1916. Currently, the 109 living recipients receive an inflation-adjusted $1,000 per month. In 2002, Congress increased the Medal of Honor pension, citing evidence that a majority of Medal of Honor recipients live solely on Social Security, supplemented by the Medal of Honor pension. On a specific note, many recipients travel extensively to speak at commemorative and patriotic events, often at their own expense, presenting an additional financial strain for which VA in 2002 deemed those heroes ought to be compensated.
My bill, H.R. 1137, will increase the base payment of the Medal of Honor Special Pension to $2,000 per month and extend the benefits to surviving spouses. This benefit acts as a token of appreciation for the selfless leadership, courageous activities and extraordinary devotion to duty shown by medal recipients.
And I yield back the balance of my time. Thanks.
[The statement of Congressman Brown appears in the Appendix.]
Mr. HALL. Thank you, Mr. Brown.
We do have a vote that is being called just now, but if we could take the time to stay and hear from Ms. Berkley about her legislation that would be good.
Ms. Berkley, you are now recognized.
Ms. BERKLEY. I thank you very much, Mr. Chairman; and I will be brief.
As Veterans Day approaches, we remember and honor the sacrifices veterans have made for our Nation. As veterans from previous wars age and countless young men and women continue to make the ultimate sacrifice, paying for the burial expenses of veterans is a growing concern for many families and State veterans' cemeteries. The burial benefits provided to our Nation's veterans by the Department of Veterans Affairs have seriously eroded due to inflation, leaving the States and families to supplement the cost.
My bill, the "Veterans Burial Benefits Improvement Act," which is supported by AMVETS, Disabled American Veterans, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA) and the American Legion, will correct this oversight by increasing the benefits to cover the same percentage—and let me repeat that—the same percentage of veterans' burial costs that were covered in 1973 when the legislation was first passed; and it seems to me in the year 2007, with a war going on, the least we could do is as well as our predecessors on the VA Committee in 1973.
America's veterans have stood on the frontlines, protecting freedom and safeguarding the values that we hold dear. Those veterans deserve our gratitude and respect.
Instead of living up to our promises made to our men and women in uniform, our government sadly has consistently shortchanged our vets. By increasing burial benefits and helping to ensure a proper and fitting ceremony, this legislation restores some of the dignity and respect to the status of our veterans.
Thank you very much.
Mr. HALL. Thank you, Ms. Berkley.
And at this time, if I could ask the patience and forbearance of our witnesses, we will—and since Mr. Langevin is not with us—we will recess and go across the street and vote and come back as quickly as we can.
Ms. BERKLEY. Mr. Chairman, it might be very difficult for me to come back. I don't know what to do, because I want to be able to vote in favor of my own legislation as well as everybody else's. We are not voting? We are just hearing testimony today?
Mr. HALL. It is a hearing today. Not a markup.
Ms. BERKLEY. We are not sending—what are we waiting for?
Mr. HALL. Well, we are going to hear some expert witnesses and testimony shortly. But you can submit questions in writing, if you wish.
Ms. BERKLEY. I will do my best to get here. But, if not, I will indeed. But I will be voting in favor at the appropriate time for each of these legislation.
Mr. HALL. Thank you all. We stand in recess.
Mr. HALL. Thank you for your patience, and the Subcommittee will resume its hearing on multiple pieces of legislation.
We have been informed that, unfortunately, Mr. Langevin will not be able to join us, so his written testimony will be entered into the record.
[The statement of Mr. Langevin appears in the Appendix.]
Mr. HALL. Therefore, we will now go to Panel 2, and I will invite the Panel 2 witnesses to come to the witness table, please: Richard Daley, Associate Legislation Director for the Paralyzed Veterans of America; and Steve Smithson, Deputy Director of Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation Commission for the American Legion.
Gentlemen, thank you for joining us; and thank you for your patience with our unpredictable schedule.
Mr. Daley, you are now recognized for 5 minutes.
STATEMENTS OF RICHARD DALEY, ASSOCIATE LEGISLATION DIRECTOR, PARALYZED VETERANS OF AMERICA; AND STEVE SMITHSON, DEPUTY DIRECTOR, VETERANS AFFAIRS AND REHABILITATION COMMISSION, AMERICAN LEGION
Mr. DALEY. Thank you.
Chairman Hall, Ranking Member Lamborn, PVA would like to thank you for the opportunity to testify today on the several pieces of important legislation.
To start with, H.R. 1137, the Medal of Honor Special Pension, PVA supports H.R. 1137, a bill that would increase the Medal of Honor Special Pension from the current $1,000 a month to $2,000 a month. As we have heard already from several sources, there are only 109 living recipients of the prestigious award, dating back to the Second World War. PVA supports this increase of this Special Pension for these heroic Americans that have served so gallantly at one time.
We generally support H.R. 3047, the "Veterans Claims Processing Innovation Act of 2007."
Section two of the bill would establish a process and places emphasis on the accuracy of the claim completed. If the VA regional office cannot receive credit for the claim until it is finally decided, we believe that this would create an incentive to process the claim correctly the first time.
Section three of the bill involves electronic processing of claims. If software is available or can be developed to help with the processing of claims, we would support a pilot program to test the efficiency and accuracy of this program. The legislation suggests that software would somehow replace the human ability to review and evaluate evidence in order to render a final evaluation. PVA does not believe that software exists that can replace the human element.
Section three requires the VA to electronically scan all files created by or submitted to such office. We believe that requiring the VA to retroactively scan in claims would create an additional burden. Perhaps this new system should be tested on new claims only.
Section four of this bill would treat the beneficiaries of the veterans' accrued benefits as a claimant for the purpose of completing the submission of the claim. PVA supports this section.
Section five of the bill requires evaluation of training and assessment programs for employees of the Veterans Benefits Administration. The VA has taken significant measures to standardize and improve training for the Veterans Benefits Administration employees. They currently have rigorous online training available for the veterans service representatives, and they are rating veterans service representatives throughout the system. We agree that the VA must continue to improve its quality assessments to their systematic technical accuracy review program and other programs to ensure that the right decision is made the first time. PVA supports section five of this bill.
H.R. 3749, the "Veterans Burial Benefits Improvement Act of 2007." PVA supports the increase in the burial payments, which are in accordance with the recommendations of the Independent Budget, the comprehensive budget policy document created by veterans for veterans.
PVA supports H.R. 3286. This bill would reduce the period of time for which veterans must be totally disabled for the purpose of benefits provided by the Secretary of Veterans Affairs for survivors of certain veterans rated totally disabled at the time of death. It would reduce the required time for a veteran's totally disabled rating from the current 10-year period to 1 year.
H.R. 3415. PVA supports H.R. 3415, a bill to authorize memorial markers in a national cemetery for the purpose of commemorating servicemembers and other persons whose remains are interred in the American Battle Monuments Commission cemetery system.
H.R. 3954, PVA supports H.R. 3954, the "Providing Military Honors for our Nation's Heroes Act."
H.R. 4084, the "Veterans Quality of Life Study Act of 2007." PVA would like to submit our comments on this legislation after we have time to further review it.
Chairman Hall and Ranking Member Lamborn, that completes my testimony. I would be available to answer any questions you may have.
[The statement of Mr. Daley appears in the Appendix.]
Mr. HALL. Thank you, Mr. Daley.
Mr. HALL. Mr. Smithson, you are now recognized. Your written statement is in the record, and you have five minutes.
Mr. SMITHSON. Good afternoon, Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee. The American Legion appreciates the opportunity to present our views on the bills being considered by the Subcommittee today.
We have provided written testimony addressing all seven bills, but my oral remarks this afternoon will be limited to H.R. 3047 and H.R. 4084.
Regarding H.R. 3047, the American Legion has been a vocal critic of the end product work measurement system which emphasizes and awards quantity of work produced, rather than quality, currently used by the Department of Veterans Affairs. The American Legion has testified before the Subcommittee in the past, advocating for the very changes proposed in this legislation, namely allowing work credit to be given only when the Board of Veterans' Appeals (BVA) has issued a final decision or the claimant has not filed an appeal within the one-year statutory appeal period. We are confident that removing the incentive for producing poor quality decisions by rewarding quality of work rather than quantity will result in an increase of accurate decisions.
We also support allowing a deceased veteran's survivor to continue the pending claim upon the veteran's death, rather than VA terminating the claim and requiring the survivor to file a separate claim for accrued benefits as is the current practice. Not only does the current practice cause duplication of effort and adds to the existing claims backlog by requiring a new claim to be filed, it poses an arbitrary one-year deadline for the filing of such claim. This deadline is often missed by grief-stricken family members who were either unaware of the deadline or are not emotionally ready to go forward with the claims process within a year of their loved one's death.
The American Legion fully supports the commonsense approach that allows VA to avoid reinventing the wheel by not having to start over from scratch with a new claim and, at the same time, provides the deceased veteran's survivor with a more user-friendly and less complicated claims process.
The American Legion also agrees with having a private entity to evaluate VA's quality assurance program. Receiving input on VA's training and performance assessment programs from an independent entity would undoubtedly provide new insight on how to enhance the current process.
Regarding proposed section four, Electronic Processing of Claims for Benefits Administered by the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, the American Legion welcomes innovative ideas regarding the processing of benefits claims and does not oppose the electronic claims processing. We were, however, initially concerned that this portion of legislation appeared to be calling for a centralized or consolidated processing of such claims, a concept the American Legion has generally opposed. It is now our understanding that the intent of this portion of the legislation is to establish a pilot program, and it is not intended to create a centralized VA claims processing system. It is also our understanding that this point will be clarified with the appropriate amendment language during the markup process. This being the case, the American Legion is not opposed to the creation of a pilot program for electronic claims processing.
Now moving on to H.R. 4084. As this legislation was not available at the time my written remarks were prepared, I will address it at this time.
The American Legion generally supports the numerous provisions of this draft legislation. However, regarding the section two study on Department of Veterans Affairs Schedule for Rating Disabilities, we note that the Institute of Medicine (IOM) conducted a study on the VA rating schedule for the Veterans' Disability Benefits Commission and that study did address quality of life factors in disability ratings. If an additional study is necessary, as proposed in this legislation, we ask that IOM's previous study be used as a base and the new study focus on areas that need to be expanded on or require additional information and clarity.
Mr. Chairman, that concludes my testimony. I would be happy to answer any questions you or Members of the Subcommittee may have.
[The statement of Mr. Smithson appears in the Appendix.]
Mr. HALL. Thank you, Mr. Smithson and Mr. Daley both, for your comments.
I have a question regarding both of your comments on the information technology (IT) component of H.R. 3047.
A couple weeks ago, on my way back from Iraq, the delegation I was with stopped in Landstuhl, Germany, and visited the hospital where our servicemen and women who are recovering stay, and we spoke to the colonel who was director of the hospital. He was telling us that, whereas at the beginning of the military operation in Iraq, soldiers would come to them with their medical records written in magic marker on their foreheads when they were wounded, what drugs they had been given in the helicopter or on the plane, what their treatment had been thus far, that now it has advanced to an electronic record which was being sent to them with each patient.
So the field treatment was surrounded by or had added to it the treatment that was given at Balad and then the treatments given on the plane to Germany, and they added there in Landstuhl a layer of what treatment and what medications were given, what therapies, what surgery, et cetera, and the whole thing was sent back with the serviceman or woman to the United States, whether they were going to Walter Reed or another DoD facility. He was under the impression that this was already starting in December to be handed off to the VA so that they would receive the entire record intact, which certainly would make the process of figuring out a disability or a claim, not to mention the service-relatedness of it, easier to do. And, of course, many of us have been looking for that kind of electronic hand-off.
Have either of you heard anything to that effect? Or have any opinion about what would be required for that to happen?
Mr. SMITHSON. Obviously, we feel the technology is there to do a better job than is currently being done with the records process. However—and VA in their testimony noted improvements that are being made in the electronics claims processing and things like that. However, we are seeing problems occur, especially with records, paper records. There is still an issue. So I think there is a lot that has been done to make improvements. And you mentioned that example, but we still think there is a long way to go to improve the process. It is not quite there yet.
Mr. HALL. I would agree with your comment that software will never completely replace the human analysis of a situation, medical or otherwise.
Mr. Daley, in considering H.R. 3047, on what basis does—I wanted to ask you, on what basis does PVA contend that the software does not exist yet? And exactly at what point does subjectivity kick in and inconsistencies in the rating system become a problem? In other words, how much of the process do you think could be handled with IT?
Mr. DALEY. Well, the software, it doesn't exist. They do handle some claims electronically, but they can't handle everything electronically. The software is not out there yet from what I understand.
About the issue of the human element, if a veteran was claiming that he has tremendous back pains that he can hardly live with and the evaluator is taking notes and maybe the veteran bends over to tie his shoe or something, the computer can't pick that up. But that evaluator puts that in the notes, that it doesn't seem to be, as serious as he claims. And the scale of pain? You would have to create a scale of pain from 1 to 10, which doesn't exist in the VA medical system now. How bad is that pain? So there is just some areas that the humans will have to be involved in using their judgment.
Mr. HALL. Thank you.
If I could jump to H.R. 3496 and ask you first, Mr. Daley, and then Mr. Smithson, what do you think should be the standard for reimbursing volunteers? And how would this function be funded? And is it not already the mission of several VSOs to provide funeral honors?
Mr. DALEY. I haven't thought about the amount. There are some State programs out there that I am aware of that do provide reimbursement now. If we did some research, contacting those States and say, how much does it cost when you get the 10 guys together, sometimes there is a trip involved, and it involves a lunch, and dry cleaning of the clothes. How much does it cost?
There is a figure available. I don't know what it is. We certainly support your reimbursing these people. I said in my written testimony, most of the time these people are retired, old veterans. Some of them are still World War II veterans out there doing that. They really can't afford to drive 30, 40 miles and have their nice jacket dry cleaned every week to perform this. But they do it anyway because they do it for a fellow veteran.
Mr. HALL. Thank you.
Mr. SMITHSON. There are, obviously, already provisions within the DoD for reimbursement for volunteers for funeral honors. So we would have to look at how this legislation would complement that to ensure that there would be no duplication.
However, to address the VSO's obligation, obviously speaking for the American Legion, providing funeral honors to veterans and deceased military members is something that we are honored to do. We take great pride in it. However, realistically, our posts and our facilities sometimes cover large areas and need to travel great distances just to cover these areas to fill in the gaps. So, obviously, reimbursement for those activities is crucial, especially for the posts in the regions that don't have a lot of money to provide that honor.
Mr. HALL. Good point. And since there are only two of us members up here, I will just take the liberty of asking another question or two and then offer Mr. Lamborn extra time as well if he needs it.
I wanted to ask you again, Mr. Smithson, what the basis is for the American Legion's contention that the BVA's work measurement system emphasizes quick action at the expense of accurate decision making. Is this based on an American Legion study or site visits focused on the end product work measurement system?
Mr. SMITHSON. A lot of it is based on all our site visits. The American Legion has a quality review team that has been operating for the last 10 or 12 years. We visited over 40 regional offices during that period of time. We go into an office, we meet with the director, the senior staff service center manager, and we spend the majority of time reviewing cases, looking for errors, things like that.
We also interview VA personnel, raters, developers, all key personnel within the regional office, and we often hear from these personnel that there is a tremendous amount of pressure—and, obviously, there is a great backlog of cases that have to be put out, but there is a tremendous amount of pressure to get cases out.
We often hear anecdotally from people that they will—when a case comes in, it is rated. They are going to rate it, but the examination, for example, is not accurate. So proper procedure would be to send it back, get the point clarified, have a new exam done, whatever it calls for. But oftentimes they are pressured to make a decision because they have to get that case out. So they prematurely will, you know, adjudicate the claim, deny it because the exam wasn't accurate, for example.
That claim comes back. The VSO files an Notices of Disagreement or asks for reconsideration. They rate the case again. They get an end product for doing it prematurely. They rate the case again. This time, they get the exam clarified or whatever needed to be done and rerate it, and they grant the claim this time. They get another end product. So they get two end products. Whereas, if they would have done it right the first time, they would have only gotten one end product. And we hear that the reason that happens is because they are pressured to get these cases out. And the way the system is set up, it does seem to reward quantity over the quality. End results are premature adjudications and other types of errors.
Mr. HALL. Good points there. And in spite of all that, or in addition to that, would you agree that timeliness should be a performance measure along with accuracy?
Mr. SMITHSON. Obviously, timeliness is a concern. I think we need to—in the backlog of the concern, I think we need to reach a good middle ground where timeliness and quality of work is also factored in, not just the putting out the quantity in work. So I think a compromise somewhere in the middle needs to be achieved.
Mr. HALL. Okay. Lastly, I just wanted to ask a general question and, obviously, a discussion concerning the Dole-Shalala Report kicked it off in a big way. Have either of your organizations, either the American Legion or PVA, had at least preliminary discussions about the concept of quality of life reimbursement?
It seems to me that most of what we have been focusing on is caretaking, loss of income, medical treatment, providing for rehabilitation of homes, for mobility, for practical measures. But some measurement of what—especially a young person's life will consist of if there is a debilitating injury for which they will suffer the effects of for the rest of their life.
Obviously, it is a big question that is being raised and a big expense that goes with it. But H.R. 4084 is attempting to, among other things, study that. And I am just curious if your organizations have kicked this idea around.
Mr. DALEY. We haven't formulated an idea yet. Quality of life is such a subjective area. I went to PVA’s research department and asked, what can you tell me about quality of life for some of the dramatically injured veterans? And our Director of Research he gave me a stack of five books all dealing with quality of life. I have some homework to do to get up on the issue of quality of life.
But certainly, the Dole-Shalala Commission said as much as 25 percent should be added to their monthly payment for quality of life. In some cases, it probably does justify that amount. We will give you more details as we study quality of life further.
Mr. HALL. Thank you, Mr. Daley.
Mr. SMITHSON. Obviously, quality of life is a concern, and there are great challenges involved with the determining how to compensate for quality of life. The Dole-Shalala Commission makes the recommendations which would create a separate payment. The Veterans' Disability Benefits Commission also addressed quality of life issues. They contracted with the Institute of Medicine to study the entire VA rating schedule, and they also looked at quality of life aspects.
We think there is a good base there, that any study produced by this legislation, H.R. 4084 could use that as a base and then focus on areas that need to be expanded. Obviously, it is not something I think—it is going to require more study to get a grasp on.
Mr. HALL. That is an understatement. I believe one example recently that involved quality of life assessment was pertaining to survivors and families of 9/11 in terms of their compensation. But, nonetheless, we obviously have a lot of work to do to quantify that.
And now I would like to recognize Mr. Lamborn for his questions.
Mr. LAMBORN. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
For both of you, I just wanted to make it clear that the amendment in the nature of a substitute would make it clear that the electronically based claims processing system would be for where there was not a need for much or any subjectivity.
One example would be in the case of a Vietnam veteran. It is assumed, under the law, that diabetes is covered because there had to have been exposure to Agent Orange. So, that is an example where no subjectivity was needed.
So, with that in mind, do you see a benefit to developing the software where there is little or no subjectivity that would be needed to free up those people for where subjectivity is needed or is that unnecessary in your opinion? Either one of you.
Mr. SMITHSON. I think it would help in those areas, like you said, that do not—that are fairly objective and clear cut. I think they could free up resources for the areas that are more subjective, and we wouldn't have a problem with that.
Like everyone else, I think we have concerns about taking the human element completely out of the picture, which from our understanding, talking with your staff, that is not going to happen, and that is not the aim of this legislation. So, based on what you said, we wouldn't have a problem with that.
Mr. LAMBORN. Okay. Do you think it is helpful for this Subcommittee to direct the VA to contract with an independent or outside agency or group of some kind to certify and review training and quality review?
Mr. SMITHSON. Yes. We think it would be helpful to have fresh eyes looking at the VA system in those areas. We have been critical of some of those areas, in quality assurance, in the training program; and VA, obviously, has their own internal review processes in place. But we think a fresh set of eyes, an independent set of eyes, would certainly not hurt and would most likely help the situation.
Mr. LAMBORN. Okay. Mr. Daley, did you want to add anything?
Mr. DALEY. Sure. As Mr. Smithson said, a fresh set of eyes.
In my comments, I mentioned the training that the VA has rolled out. They have developed online training, and that is a brand-new program, for their service officers. It is supposed to be the most up-to-date and it takes into consideration a lot of medical issues. Before that, the training was on a regional basis and an office basis, and it wasn't nationalized. Their new training system, online system, is supposed to be the greatest thing. And it is brand new. So we need to give it a chance and let it get, circulated and used. It is standardized, and everybody is going to get the same message, the same way. Certainly, VA needs to evaluate and update some of the training. Constantly update, because they are running into new situations with the current conflict that the VA hasn't dealt with in the past.
Mr. LAMBORN. Now a related question. Would you be in favor of competency testing for Rating Veterans Service Representatives (RVSRs) and Veterans Service Representatives (VSRs) to improve accuracy and quality?
Mr. SMITHSON. We have testified on that previously, and it is our understanding that VA is currently in the process of testing VSRs for competency and efficiency. I don't believe they conducted any test this year. However, their goal was to do two tests a year, and they are in the process of developing a test for the RVSRs and the Decision Review Officers (DROs).
Our concern is that—obviously, with the tests that have been conducted for the VSR so far, there is still a very low pass rate. And, it is also our understanding that the testing is not a condition for employment, for keeping that job. It is optional. They can choose to test or not. Of course, if they don't test, they won't be easily promoted. They are using it mainly for promotion basis.
And, we feel that any testing that is conducted, whether it be for VSRs or RVSRs or DROs, be mandatory and be a condition of employment and individuals that fail be given remedial training and other actions to correct their performance; and that is not being done right now.
Mr. LAMBORN. Now in a similar vein, what emphasis is currently being placed on the quality of a ratings decision versus the quantity of rating decisions? Or that a rating decision was made, period.
Mr. SMITHSON. We think, from our observations of the system, looking at cases, talking to people in the VA system at the regional office level, doing our quality reviews, that there has been a greater emphasis, I think placed on quality of work. But, there is still—I think the greater emphasis is still on quantity over quality, and we still see that as a problem.
Mr. LAMBORN. Now a slightly different question. If a survivor were to step in and take over a pending claim, should that person be able to introduce new evidence? Or should it stick to the claim as it was at the time that the original claimant passed away?
Mr. SMITHSON. Basically, we do not have a problem with the person, the eligible dependent submitting additional evidence with the claim. We feel that allowing that, allowing that individual to advance that claim upon—the pending claim upon the veteran's death is a very good thing in that, under the current process, you have one year to file accrued benefits claim. A lot of times the deadline is missed, as I mentioned in my oral remarks, because people are grief stricken, they don't know the process, so they miss the date. Allowing them to advance the claim automatically without having to file a separate claim, it gets away from reinventing the wheel, and it allows for a more s