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Witness Testimony of Shane Barker, Senior Legislative Associate, National Legislative Service, Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States

MR. CHAIRMAN AND MEMBERS OF THIS COMMITTEE: On behalf of the 2.1 million members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States and our Auxiliaries, the VFW would like to thank this committee for the opportunity to present our views on today's pending legislation.

H.R. 811, the Providing Military Honors for our Nation's Heroes Act

This bill is intended to help mitigate costs to military retirees and veterans who are taking it upon themselves to assist in providing military funeral honors for veterans. Ordinarily, this sacred task is the responsibility of our military, however, because of our ongoing commitments overseas they are often unable to meet the demand for such honors. The VFW strongly believes that all who have earned such honors should receive them in full. This commitment is the basis on which we support H.R. 811. This legislation promotes volunteer participation by providing a reimbursement for travel and incidental expenses to members of Veteran Service Organizations and other groups approved by the Secretary of Veterans Affairs. At a time when many of our greatest generation are passing on, and those serving in current conflicts are risking their lives for our country, this measure is appropriate and well-deserved.

H.R.1407, the Veterans' Compensation Cost-of-Living Adjustment Act of 2011

The VFW supports this legislation. Veterans have not received a COLA increase in two years, but are still paying more at the grocery store, pharmacy, gas pump, and elsewhere. We are encouraged that recent data shows a 2.1 % increase in the CPI-W over the 2008 COLA base, and are hopeful that veterans and survivors will see a corresponding increase in their pensions and other compensation, such as DIC, in the coming year. This legislation is the vehicle to ensure that takes place.

H.R. 1441, a bill to codify the prohibition of gravesites at Arlington National Cemetery, and for other purposes

This legislation is long overdue. It will finally prohibit, in law, the insider practice of allowing certain high-ranking military members and other VIPs to pre-select their gravesites. This practice was banned by Army policy in 1962 -nearly 50 years ago -yet cemetery administrators continued to arbitrarily allow some to skirt the rules. Burial at Arlington National Cemetery is a tremendous honor that depends on honorable service, not rank. It is obvious that greater accountability and transparency is needed, so we appreciate language in this bill that requires a full audit and a report back to Congress.

H.R. 1484, the Veterans Appeals Improvement Act of 2011

Section 2 would make significant changes to the claims appeals process. Specifically, it would reverse the current procedure of requiring new evidence submitted for a claim under appeal to be considered by a regional office before being sent to the Board of Veterans Appeals, except in cases where the appellant waives that review. It would also would stipulate that the Board is required to rate all new evidence submitted after the case is sent to them unless the veteran specifically refuses to waive their consideration.

To be sure, the procedures currently in place often make for a lengthy appeals process. When new evidence for an appeal claim is submitted, the Board puts the appeal on hold and contacts the appellant to inquire whether or not he or she wants to waive local consideration of the new evidence. That alone often tacks a few months onto the length of a claim. When appellants want a regional office to review new evidence, the appeal is remanded back to that office from the Board, and that can easily add another year onto the appeal process. In some cases, however, new evidence being reviewed locally can bring about a local grant of the benefit sought through the appeal, and can put the matter to rest more quickly. Additionally, this local review provides appellants one more opportunity to have the appeal looked at and decided in their favor.

These changes would allow the Board to move more quickly on appeals, and would alter but not eliminate an appellant's right to local consideration. Among our VFW service officers, we waive local consideration about 90% of the time for veterans we represent. Furthermore, most veterans who file claims unrepresented often do not know they have the ability to waive local consideration. We do not believe this procedural change would have a significant impact on appellants, and the VFW supports Section 2 of the bill.

Section 3 would create a Veterans Judicial Review Commission and charge it with reviewing the administrative and judicial appellate review process, and to report to Congress recommendations for improving the process. The VFW would reserve the privilege to review the work of the Commission and respond after having a chance to read and digest any specific recommendations they would choose to make.

For these reasons, the VFW has no official position on this section of the legislation.

H.R. 1627, a bill to amend title 38, United States Code, to provide for certain requirements for the placement of monuments in Arlington National Cemetery, and for other purposes

The VFW supports this effort to codify procedures used at Arlington Cemetery to place memorial markers. We strongly believe that any decisions that would affect the grounds at Arlington must be principled, fair, and based on precedent. We also believe that the individual placement of memorial markers should not hinge upon the legislative process. This legislation advances these principles by taking existing procedures for placing memorial markers and making them the law of the land.

H.R. 1647, the Veterans Choice in Filing Act of 2011 The VFW does not support this legislation.

H.R. 1647 creates a two-year pilot program under which veterans at five underperforming regional offices would be able to submit benefits claims to any VA regional office of their choice. The VFW is by no means opposed to identifying and using any appropriate means to raise poorly performing offices up to standards. In fact, we are so committed to that goal, we would rather see our collective efforts focused on a permanent solution to the complicated and systemic problems with claims processing. This pilot would merely require V A to shuffle work around -a practice, in fact, that already takes place within VBA. The VA uses the term "brokering" to describe the way in which they address disparities in production by transferring cases from backed up offices to those with "excess capacity." One of our concerns is the possibility that this pilot program could create even more brokering in response to claims being sent by veterans to the regional office of their choosing, and could lead to those underperforming office receiving the same amount of work from across the country through the already existing brokering process.

It also creates serious headaches for VFW service offices and those from other Veteran Service Organizations -and potentially the veterans themselves. It is unclear how we or an individual veteran would know whom to contact about their claim, or how effective a service officer could be regarding a claim that was sent to a distant state from across the country.

At a time when VA is conducting dozens of other pilot programs while applying significant resources to get ahead of the curve on the backlog, we believe measures with no apparent value added should be deferred.

H. Con. Res. 12, a resolution expressing the sense of Congress that an appropriate site on Chaplains Hill in Arlington National Cemetery should be provided for a memorial marker to honor the memory of the Jewish chaplains who died while on active duty in the Armed Forces of the United States

The VFW supports this resolution. One needs to look no further than the resolution itself to find testimony of the dedication, selflessness, and sacrifices made by chaplains of the Jewish faith on behalf of the United States. Today there stands three other memorial markers on Chaplains Hill in Arlington, two of which are in memoriam of chaplains of other faiths. It seems appropriate and fitting that a marker of similar design should be allowed to pay tribute to the many Rabbinical Chaplains who have also served with dignity and honor.