IMPLEMENTATION OF THE VOW TO HIRE HEROES ACT OF 2011
SUBCOMMITTEE ON ECONOMIC OPPORTUNITY
COMMITTEE ON VETERANS' AFFAIRS
U.S. HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES
ONE HUNDRED TWELFTH CONGRESS
DECEMBER 15, 2011
SERIAL No. 112-38
Printed for the use of the Committee on Veterans' Affairs
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For sale by the Superintendent of
Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office
CLIFF STEARNS, Florida
BOB FILNER, California, Ranking
Helen W. Tolar, Staff Director and Chief Counsel
SUBCOMMITTEE ON ECONOMIC
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
December 15, 2011
Implementation of the VOW to Hire Heroes Act of 2011
Chairman Marlin A. Stutzman
Prepared statement of Chairman Stutzman
Hon. Bruce L. Braley, Ranking Republican Member
Prepared statement of Congressman Braley
Ismael Ortiz, Jr., Acting Assistant Secretary, Veterans’
Employment and Training Service, U.S. Department of Labor
Prepared statement of Mr. Ortiz
Gerri Fiala, Deputy Assistant Secretary, Employment and Training Administration, U.S. Department of Labor
Curtis L. Coy, Deputy Under Secretary for Economic Opportunity, Veterans Benefits Administration, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs
Prepared statement of Mr. Coy
Keith M. Wilson, Director, Education Service, Veterans Benefits Administration, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs
MATERIAL SUBMITTED FOR THE RECORD
Deliverable from Department of Veterans Affairs, Received February 1, 2012
Questions from Honorable Bill Johnson to Mr. Curtis Coy, Deputy Under Secretary for Economic Opportunity, Veterans Benefits Administration, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs
IMPLEMENTATION OF THE VOW TO HIRE HEROES ACT OF 2011
Thursday, December 15, 2011
U. S. House of Representatives,
Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity,
Committee on Veterans' Affairs,
The Committee met, pursuant to notice, at 10:09
a.m., in Room 340, Cannon House Office Building, Hon. Marlin
A. Stutzman [Chairman of the Subcommittee] presiding.
Present: Representatives Stutzman, Bilirakis, Johnson, Braley, Walz.
OPENING STATEMENT OF CHAIRMAN STUTZMAN
Mr. STUTZMAN Good morning. And I want to welcome everyone this morning to
the Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity. And I want to thank our witnesses
for being here this morning. We are here today to begin this subcommittee’s
review of the implementation of Public Law 112-56, the VOW to Hire Heroes Act of
2011. This will be just the first in a series of oversight hearings we will hold
through July of next year.
This bipartisan and bicameral legislation was signed into law by the President in November and is the culmination of many months of work by this committee and many others to reduce unemployment among veterans. These efforts began with oversight hearings by this subcommittee last winter, which led to the introduction and passage of H.R. 2433, the Veteran Opportunity to Work Act of 2011 earlier this fall.
The major provision of both H.R. 2433 and the VOW to Hire Heroes Act is the
temporary extension of Montgomery G.I. Bill benefits to eligible veterans to
receive up to one year of training at a community college or technical school
for in demand occupations. Eligible veterans would have to be between the age of
35 and 60, be unemployed, and not have eligibility for other VA education
The latest numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that there are an estimated 531,000 unemployed veterans between the ages of 35 and 64. This represents about two-thirds of all of unemployed veterans in this country. It is this population that this program is intended to help. And it is our obligation to ensure that VA and VETS meet the July 1, 2011 implementation deadline so this provision can help this group of aging veterans as quickly as possible.
While there are many other worthwhile provisions in the VOW Act, the implementation of this provision and the provision extending vocational rehabilitation benefits to veterans who have passed their delimiting date will be this subcommittee’s focus.
While I am aware that the legislation was only signed into law a few weeks ago, I am anxious to hear about the progress the VA and the DOL have been making on implementation in their plans for future collaboration as required by law.
I cannot stress enough that the proper implementation of this law is extremely critical. And as such, I want to put both agencies on notice that this will our subcommittee’s top priority in the next session of Congress and we need your help. And we look forward to working with you in identifying obstacles and problems as soon as possible so we can work together and work them out, and get this law implemented.
Together we can ensure that our veterans are not cheated out of this wonderful benefit because of any bureaucratic delays or hurdles. Our veterans deserve and will receive nothing less.
So I thank our witnesses for being here today to inform us on the progress the departments have made. At this time I want to yield to the distinguished ranking member from the great State of Iowa, Mr. Braley.
[The statement of Marlin A. Stutzman appears in the Appendix.]
OPENING STATEMENT OF BRUCE L. BRALEY
Mr. BRALEY Well thank you for acknowledging the greatness of the State of Iowa,
Mr. Chairman. I can tell you after visiting Fort Wayne with you earlier this
summer, I extend the same warm greeting to all of your constituents and
colleagues back in Indiana. This has been a delightful Subcommittee to work with
this year and we have a great panel, and we welcome all of you especially a
special guest from the State of Iowa who has roots in Mason City. So welcome to
all of you.
I am very proud to have worked with this Committee to pass the VOW to Hire Heroes Act and I am optimistic that this legislation is a step in the right direction to putting our veterans back to work. In August when we were doing our field hearings in Waterloo, Iowa and Fort Wayne, Indiana I introduced the Combat Veterans Back to Work Act, which provided tax incentives to employers to hire veterans who recently returned from service overseas. And I am pleased that the VOW Act includes tax incentives for hiring veterans that I have been pushing all year.
Additionally in October I joined Chairman Stutzman to host two field hearings, one in Iowa and one in Indiana, that focused on the important issue of veterans unemployment. And one of the things that came up at those hearings was the need to help returning servicemembers translate their military skills to the civilian workforce, which is why I am pleased that the VOW Act includes veterans retraining provisions. This will ensure that they have the skills necessary to be competitive in today’s tough job market.
Section 211 of the bill which focuses on retraining has an implementation date of July, 2012. This new program will be very beneficial for older veterans that have exhausted their educational benefits or other available VA educational programs. And it is my hope that they Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Labor have already begun discussions on how to jointly carry out this program and administer this section as scheduled. The interagency program will change the lives of 99,000 unemployed veterans and that is a goal we can all be focused on and hopefully help reduce.
Section 233 of the VOW to Hire Heroes Act provides disabled veterans up to 12 months of additional vocational, rehabilitation, and employment benefits. In the past we have had hearings and discussions surrounding VR&E counselors workload. During our March hearing we expressed our concern with the VR&E veteran to counselor ratio of one to 136. I look forward to hearing from our witnesses today on what steps will be taken to ensure there is adequate staff at VR&E who are prepared to handle proper implementation of this section. And I hope the VA is ready to discuss how they will prepare to handle additional workload without sacrificing the counseling services that veterans need.
And with that I thank you all and yield back.
[The statement of Bruce L. Braley appears in the Appendix.]
Mr. STUTZMAN Thank you, Mr. Braley. And at this time I want to welcome our panelists. And our panel consists of Mr. Curtis Coy, who is accompanied by Mr. Keith Wilson. Welcome. And both of these gentlemen are from the Department of Veterans Affairs. And Mr. Ortiz, who is accompanied by Ms. Gerri Fiala, both from the Department of Labor. And I had the opportunity to visit with Mr. Ortiz just a couple of days ago. Some remarkable stories, four sons in the military. So I am looking forward to working with you. You should be very proud of your family and what you have accomplished yourself, as a veteran yourself. And so thank you for being here this morning, and we will recognize you for five minutes for your testimony.
STATEMENTS OF ISMAEL ORTIZ, JR., ACTING ASSISTANT SECRETARY, VETERANS’ EMPLOYMENT AND TRAINING SERVICE, U.S. DEPARTMENT OF LABOR; ACCOMPANIED BY GERRI FIALA, DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY, EMPLOYMENT AND TRAINING ADMINISTRATION, U.S. DEPARTMENT OF LABOR; AND CURTIS L. COY, DEPUTY UNDER SECRETARY FOR ECONOMIC OPPORTUNITY, VETERANS BENEFITS ADMINISTRATION, U.S. DEPARTMENT OF VETERANS AFFAIRS; ACCOMPANIED BY KEITH M. WILSON, DIRECTOR, EDUCATION SERVICE, VETERANS BENEFITS ADMINISTRATION, U.S. DEPARTMENT OF VETERANS AFFAIRS
STATEMENT OF ISMAEL ORTIZ, JR.
Mr. ORTIZ Good morning, Mr. Chairman, Mr. Braley, and distinguished members of
the subcommittee. My name is Junior Ortiz of the Department of Labor’s Veterans’
Employment and Training Service. And I am accompanied by Ms. Gerri Fiala, Deputy
Assistant Secretary for the Employment and Training Administration. Thank you
for the invitation to participate in today’s hearing on the implementation of
the VOW to Hire Heroes Act of 2011.
This legislation is an integral part of President Obama’s efforts to ensure that America fulfills its obligation to our returning servicemembers, veterans, and their families. The Department of Labor has various responsibilities under the VOW Act. However, per the subcommittee’s request my testimony today will focus on Section 211, the Veterans Retraining Assistance Program, and Section 233 that provides training and rehabilitation for veterans with service connected disabilities who have exhausted rights to unemployment compensation under state law.
I am particularly grateful for this opportunity to discuss DOL and VA’s collaborative efforts to implement and administer these two provisions. The department is fully committed to working with our federal partners to implement the Act.
I would like to begin by first discussing Section 211 of the VOW Act, which establishes the Veterans Retraining Assistance Program for unemployed veterans between the ages of 35 to 60. Eligible veterans have up to 12 months of retraining assistance when they pursue a qualified education and training program. The VOW Act specifies that VA and DOL will jointly administer the process for determining veterans’ eligibility into the program. As a result, the two agencies are working together to make sure this implementation happens.
Even before the VOW Act was enacted DOL and VA had already initiated planning to get a head start on implementation of this critical legislation. During the next seven months DOL and VA will jointly manage and accomplish the following milestones. One, establish a memorandum of agreement and project charter that will delineate agency specific processes and responsibilities from initial intake through the completion of the program. Two, seek consultation on process design with veterans employment and training experts in state and local workforce agencies and other appropriate stakeholder organizations representing veterans’ interests. Three, design, test, and implement customized application processing systems to manage DOL and VA’s joint responsibility under the program. Four, develop, test, and implement enrollment and participation tracking systems to enable the agency to report program results. And five, develop and execute outreach and technical assistance strategies to both stakeholders and program delivery staff.
As we complete the project charter and the memorandum of agreement we have identified two major operational implementation challenges which will need to be addressed over the next few weeks. First, we must find a way to connect and facilitate a successful interaction between the public workforce system and the VA’s federally centralized G.I. Bill system. Second, we need to develop a mechanism to enable DOL and VA to appropriately access each other’s administrative and performance data systems. Now VA and DOL are working together to address these issues to ensure the program is successful while protecting privacy and data sharing agreements.
We are also working together to implement Section 233 of the VOW Act which provides additional benefits to disabled veterans that have exhausted their unemployment insurance (UI) benefits. The VA is primarily responsible for the administration of this provision. However, DOL will have a key role in developing the eligibility determination process. Currently there is no single unified system that can be used to determine whether a person has exhausted his or her rights to regular compensation under state law. As a result, we expect the state UI agencies will be involved in making the determination. DOL is exploring possible operational methods to successfully execute this provision.
In addition to Sections 211 and 233 the VOW Act contains several provisions that DOL is working to implement in collaboration with other federal agencies as needed.
In conclusion, Mr. Chairman, both DOL and VA are committed to the full and speedy implementation of the VOW to Hire Heroes Act of 2011. We will keep you and the subcommittee appraised of implementation milestones through regular briefings as requested.
Members of the committee, this concludes my statement. I would be pleased to answer any questions you may have. Thank you.
[The statement of Ismael Ortiz, Jr. appears in the Appendix.]
Mr. STUTZMAN Thank you. Mr. Coy, we will recognize you for five minutes for
STATEMENT OF CURTIS COY
Mr. STUTZMAN Okay. Mr. Walz? Okay. All right. Well that concludes the
questions. I just I would like to make just one follow up to Mr. Walz’
suggestion about what they are doing in Minnesota in identifying those who are
unemployed. I think that is something that we could follow up on. I appreciate
that suggestion. And it is something that we could work on right away in the
near future. I think that is, it would be valuable for us to look at that, and
also for you all as well.
I want to thank you all for being here today. And I know we will be meeting again soon. And I appreciate your input and the work that you are doing. As I mentioned earlier, this is important to all of us and especially our veterans. And so at this point I would like to ask unanimous consent that all members have five legislative days to revise and extend their remarks on today’s hearing. Hearing no objection, so ordered. I want to wish you all a happy holiday season, and again I know we have veterans that are coming home for the holidays thankfully and we cannot wait until they are home safe and sound. So at this point, if there is no further business, we are adjourned.
[Whereupon, at 11:14 a.m., the committee was adjourned.]
Prepared Statement of
Honorable Marlin A. Stutzman, Chairman, Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity
Good Morning. We are here today to begin this subcommittee’s review of the implementation of Public Law 112-56 the VOW to Hire Heroes Act of 2011. This will be just the first in a series of oversight hearings we will hold through July of next year.
This bipartisan and bicameral legislation was signed into law by the President Obama in November and is the culmination of many months of work by this Committee to reduce unemployment among veterans. These efforts began with oversight hearings by this Subcommittee last winter which led to the introduction and passage of H.R. 2433 the Veteran Opportunity to Work Act of 2011 earlier this fall.
The major provision of both H.R. 2433 and the VOW to Hire Heroes Act is the temporary extension of Montgomery GI Bill benefits to eligible veterans to receive up to one year of training at a community college or technical school for in-demand occupations. Eligible veterans would have to be between the age of 35 and 60, be unemployed, and not have eligibility for other VA education programs.
Latest numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that there are an estimated 531,000 unemployed veterans between the ages of 35 and 64. This represents about two thirds of all of unemployed veterans in this country. It is this population that this program is intended to help, and it is our obligation to ensure that VA and VETS meet the July 1, 2011 implementation deadline so this provision can help this group of aging veterans as quickly as possible.
While there are many other worthwhile provisions in the VOW Act, the implementation of this provision and the provision extending vocational rehabilitation benefits to veterans who have passed their delimiting date will be the Subcommittee’s focus.
While I am aware that the legislation was only signed into law a few weeks ago, I am anxious to hear about the progress VA and DOL have been making on implementation and their plans for future collaboration as required by law.
I can’t stress enough that the proper implementation of this law is extremely critical, and as such I want to put both agencies on notice that this will be this Subcommittee’s top priority in the next session of Congress and we need your help in identifying obstacles and problems as soon as possible so we can work them out and get this law implemented.
Together we can ensure that our veterans are not cheated out this wonderful benefit because of bureaucratic delays or hurdles. Our veterans deserve and will receive nothing less.
I thank our witness for being here today to inform us on the progress the departments have made, and I now yield to the distinguished Ranking Member from the great state of Iowa for any remarks he may have.
Prepared Statement of Honorable Bruce L. Braley, Ranking Democratic Member
I’m very proud to have worked with this Committee to pass the VOW to Hire Heroes Act. I am optimistic this legislation is a step in the right direction for putting our veterans back to work. In August, I introduced the Combat Veterans Back to Work Act, which provided tax incentives to employers to hire veterans and recently returned service members. I am pleased that the VOW Act includes tax incentives for hiring veterans that I’ve been pushing for all year.
Additionally, in October, I joined Chairman Stutzman to host two field hearings – one in Iowa and one in Indiana – that focused on veterans’ unemployment. One of the things that came up at these hearings was the need to help returning service members translate their military skills to civilian skills, which is why I am pleased that the VOW Act includes veterans retraining. This will help ensure that they have the skills necessary to be competitive in today’s tough job market.
Section 211 of this bill, which focuses on retraining, has an implementation date of July, 2012. This new program will be very beneficial for older veterans that have exhausted their educational benefits or other available VA vocational programs. It is my hope that the Department of Veterans Affairs and Department of Labor have already begun discussions on how to jointly carry out this program and administer this section as scheduled. This interagency program will help change the lives of 99,000 unemployed veterans.
Section 233 of the VOW to Hire Heroes Act provides disabled veterans up to 12 months of additional Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment (VR&E) benefits. In the past we’ve had hearings and discussions surrounding VR&E counselor’s workload. During our March hearing we expressed our concerns with the VR&E veteran-to-counselor ratio of 1:136.
I I look forward to hearing from our witnesses today on what steps will be taken to ensure that there is adequate staff at VR&E who are prepared to handle proper implementation of this section. I hope the VA is ready to discuss how they will prepare to handle additional workload without sacrificing the counseling services veterans need.
Prepared Statement of Ismael Ortiz, Jr., Acting Assistant Secretary, Veterans' Employment and Training Service, U.S. Department of Labor
Good morning Chairman Stutzman, Ranking Member Braley, and distinguished members of the Subcommittee. Thank you for your invitation to participate in today’s hearing on the implementation of the VOW to Hire Heroes Act of 2011 (VOW). This legislation is an integral part of President Obama’s efforts to ensure that America fulfills its obligations to our returning Service Members, veterans, and their families. The VOW Act also incorporates several important components of the American Jobs Act, including the Wounded Warrior and Returning Heroes Tax Credits. The bill garnered broad bipartisan support in Congress and the President signed it into law on November 21, 2011.
Although recent data from the Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that payrolls have climbed and the unemployment rate has dropped to a two-year low, we need faster economic growth to put Americans back to work. Moreover, high unemployment rates among veterans remain an area of concern. The VOW Act is intended to lower the unemployment rates of veterans by providing a broad array of new and expanded services to assist them in acquiring the enhanced skills needed to compete in today’s labor market and thus facilitate veterans’ return to work.
The Department of Labor (DOL) has various responsibilities under the VOW Act; however, per the Subcommittee’s request, my testimony today will focus— on section 211, the “Veterans Retraining Assistance Program” (VRAP), and section 233, “Training and Rehabilitation for Veterans who have Exhausted Rights to Unemployment Compensation under State Law”. I am particularly grateful for this opportunity to discuss DOL’s collaborative efforts with the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to implement and administer these two provisions in a coordinated and cost-effective way that will facilitate eligible veterans’ access to the valuable services available under the law.
The VOW Act recognizes that providing comprehensive services to veterans requires Federal agencies to work together, leverage collective resources, and streamline processes. The Department is fully committed to working with our Federal partners to implement the Act. We believe that this commitment is demonstrated not only by DOL and VA’s recent collaboration on sections 211 and 233 of the VOW, but also by other ongoing efforts in support of our Nation’s veterans. Therefore, before I turn to a discussion of the VOW Act, I want to update you on some of our other recent work with the VA.
On November 7th, 2011, the President and DOL announced the “Gold Card Initiative” which offers a set of intensive services to post-9/11 veterans through DOL’s nationwide network of approximately 3,000 One-Stop Career Centers. The goal of this initiative is to jump-start the job search process for post-9/11 veterans through enhanced in-person services that help them reconnect to the civilian labor force. In order to maximize outreach, DOL partnered with the VA to ensure that the promotion of the Gold Card was visible through both DOL and VA resources, including posting easy-to-access links on our respective Web sites.
On the same day, the Administration launched a new Veterans Jobs Bank, an easy-to-use tool to help connect veterans looking for jobs with employers looking to hire them. It already allows veterans to search nearly one million job postings and is still growing. In a few easy steps, employers can make sure the job postings on their own Web sites are part of this Veterans Jobs Bank. The Veterans Job Bank is found at www.nrd.gov, the National Resource Directory, which has been a successful joint effort and example of past collaboration among DOL, VA, and the Department of Defense.
Interagency collaboration is an essential component in ensuring that the public workforce system effectively implements the requirements of this legislation. For example, DOL plans to consult with the VA in preparing guidance related to the recent revisions to the Post-9/11 GI Bill. This guidance will be issued to the One-Stop Career Center line staff and Disabled Veterans Outreach Program Specialists and Local Veterans Employment Representatives so that they are familiar with these revisions. The guidance will also help them tap into the resources made available in the GI Bill to better direct veterans to training and other such services critical to helping veterans attain the credentials necessary to secure employment.
The Veterans Retraining Assistance Program
Section 211 of the VOW establishes the Veterans Retraining Assistance Program (VRAP) for unemployed veterans aged 35 to 60. The VRAP, which entitles eligible veterans to retraining assistance for up to 12 months when they pursue a qualified program or training, must be up and running no later than July 1, 2012. The VOW Act specifies that VA and DOL will jointly administer the process for determining veterans’ eligibility for VRAP. Specifically, DOL will be responsible for determining applicants’ initial eligibility based on age, employment status, and previous participation in other job training programs. Following DOL’s determination, the VA is required to certify applicants based on several additional criteria, such as the conditions of the applicants’ discharge and eligibility for other forms of assistance. Other DOL-specific requirements include identifying the high-demand occupations that will be the focus of VRAP training, and contacting veterans within 30 days of completing or terminating the VRAP training to inform them of the employment placement services that are available to them. The VOW Act also requires DOL to work with VA to establish a process for resolving appeals of eligibility determinations made by the agencies. DOL and VA are still discussing the processes and systems that will be used to carry-out the VRAP program but it is very likely that the One-Stop Career Center System will play a key role.
Before the VOW Act was enacted, DOL and VA had already initiated planning to get a head start on implementation of this critical legislation. During the next seven months leading up to the July 1, 2012 deadline for the commencement of VRAP, we will accomplish the following milestones that will be jointly-managed by DOL and VA:
We have identified two major operational and implementation challenges which will need to be addressed over the next few weeks as we complete the Project Charter and Memorandum of Agreement. First, we must find a way to connect, and facilitate a successful interaction between the public workforce system – a decentralized, nationwide network of approximately 3,000 One-Stop Career Centers managed though a combination of Federal, state, and local partnerships – and the VA’s Federally-centralized GI Bill system. Second, we need to develop a mechanism to enable DOL and VA to appropriately access each other’s administrative and performance data systems, so that we can ensure the successful execution of the VRAP, while also protecting the agencies’ respective privacy and data sharing agreements and requirements.
Expanded Benefits for Veterans with Service Related Disabilities
Section 233 of the VOW amends current law to allow individuals with service-connected disabilities who have exhausted Unemployment Insurance (UI) benefits under state law to seek assistance from additional rehabilitation programs specified in the legislation. The VA is primarily responsible for the administration of this provision; however, DOL will have a key role in developing the eligibility determination process. To avail themselves of the assistance provided for under section 233, applicants must have exhausted their rights to regular compensation under State law and must not be receiving unemployment compensation under Canadian law. Because there is currently no single unified system that can be used to determine whether a person has exhausted his or her rights to regular compensation under State law, we expect that State UI agencies would be involved in making this determination. DOL is exploring possible operational methods to successfully execute this provision. In particular, we are examining the process utilized in other Federal benefit programs, such as the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), that would allow state UI agencies to be reimbursed for the workload in making the necessary determinations.
Additionally, while we can determine if someone is receiving unemployment benefits based on wages in both the United States and in Canada, we do not, at present, have the ability to determine if an individual is eligible for Canadian unemployment benefits solely based upon the wages the person earned in Canada. DOL anticipates that we will need to review Canadian confidentiality laws to ascertain if there are any existing, reasonable methods to reliably obtain that information.
Other Provisions of Note
In addition to sections 211 and 233, the VOW contains several provisions that are designed to enhance the Department’s current activities and programs targeted towards veterans. These enhancements include, but are not limited to: (1) required participation in the Transition Assistance Program, which designed to increase veterans’ awareness and utilization of the employment, education, and training programs that are available to them; (2) increased veterans’ access to apprenticeship and pre-apprenticeship programs; (3) clarified priority of service reporting requirements within the public workforce system; (4) identification of skill equivalencies between military and civilian occupations; and (5) amendment and expansion of the categories of veterans eligible for the Work Opportunity Tax Credit. The Department, working in collaboration with other Federal agencies, as needed, is actively developing a strategic plan to implement these provisions within the timeframes contained in the VOW Act.
Mr. Chairman, as I stated earlier, both DOL and VA are committed to the full and speedy implementation of the VOW to Hire Heroes Act of 2011 in support of veterans’ success in the civilian labor market. We will keep you and the Subcommittee apprised of implementation milestones through regular briefings, as requested.
Members of the Committee, this concludes my statement. I would be pleased to answer any questions you may have.
Prepared Statement of Curtis L. Coy, Deputy Under Secretary for Economic Opportunity, Veterans Benefits Administration, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs
Good morning, Chairman Stutzman, Ranking Member Braley, and Members of the Subcommittee. I appreciate the opportunity to appear before you today to discuss the progress made by the Department Veterans Affairs (VA) toward implementing the provisions in title II of Public Law 112-56, the “VOW to Hire Heroes Act of 2011.” I am accompanied today by Mr. Keith Wilson, Director of VA’s Education Service. My testimony will discuss the relevant sections of the legislation and explain how we plan to address them, with particular emphasis on section 211.
Many of the provisions outlined in the VOW to Hire Heroes Act of 2011 closely align with the improvement of economic opportunities for Veterans. Secretary Shinseki has emphasized that this critical legislation will materially help our Servicemembers and Veterans with employment and transition. VA is committed to executing, in collaboration with other agencies and stakeholders, all provisions of this law for which we have responsibility, and I have outlined our coordinated approach in my testimony.
Section 211 – The Veterans Retraining Assistance Program
This section requires the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to establish a program of retraining assistance for eligible Veterans in collaboration with the Secretary of Labor not later than July 1, 2012. The number of Veterans who participate in the program may not exceed 45,000 in fiscal year (FY) 2012 and 54,000 during the period beginning on October 1, 2012, and ending on March 31, 2014, when the authority to make payments under the program will terminate. Eligible Veterans will receive the Montgomery GI Bill-Active Duty (chapter 30) full-time benefit rate for up to 12 months. Training must be completed at a VA-approved community college or technical school; it must lead to an associate degree, certificate, or other record or completion; and the training must pertain to an occupation deemed by the Department of Labor (DOL) to be in high demand. The training programs must begin on or after July 1, 2012, and the authority for VA to make payments ends on March 31, 2014.
The law establishes a set of criteria that Veterans must meet in order to participate in the program. VA and DOL must evaluate a Veteran’s age range, employment status, character of discharge, type of training, and other key elements when determining eligibility. The law requires VA and DOL to form a close partnership to successfully implement this retraining assistance program, including establishing a formal memorandum of agreement with a process for resolving disputes and appeals. VA and DOL must also track participants, payments, and degrees awarded, and submit a final report on the impact of the retraining program to the Senate Committees on Veterans’ Affairs and Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, and the House Committees on Veterans’ Affairs and Education and the Workforce.
In mid-November , VA and DOL representatives met to discuss plans for implementing the provisions of section 211. The participants identified high-level roles, responsibilities, and decision points, and discussed a preliminary VA-developed framework for an integrated master schedule for managing the implementation of this new program. VA also provided a high-level summary of the claims and payment process from VA’s perspective to initiate collaborative discussions regarding information sharing and other logistical needs between the two Departments. At follow-up meetings, representatives from both Departments discussed how to successfully administer this program without duplication of effort and within the required timeframe, including existing benefit processing and payment systems within VA, and One-Stop Career Centers and other Veteran intake centers within DOL.
Initial DOL responsibilities identified in these meetings center on conducting initial Veteran intake, making DOL-specific eligibility determinations (unemployment, high-value career fields, etc.) as directed by the legislation, and ensuring that required information is collected and appropriately disseminated to VA. Initial VA responsibilities include conducting VA-specific eligibility determinations (eligibility to VA benefits, prior benefit usage), communicating eligibility decisions, processing enrollment information, and administering payments. VA is also focused on ensuring mechanisms are in place to meet the law’s extensive reporting requirements.
While VA and DOL are on an excellent track in implementation planning and tackling the more complex aspects of the law, we anticipate challenges associated with implementing this program.. The law requires rapid establishment of a broad partnership between agencies with vastly different operating structures and information technology (IT) systems. Provisions of this law, including wide-ranging eligibility criteria, present IT and logistical challenges in addition to the increased workload the program generates. The aggressive timeframe also magnifies the complexity of this effort. VA and DOL are working hard to mitigate these risks using innovative solutions.
To ensure this program’s success, VA and DOL staff and leadership currently participate in weekly meetings to track progress, share information, and develop implementation strategies. Internally, VA staff and project leads meet daily to discuss implementation status and ensure we remain on track to meet the July 1, 2012 deadline. Additionally, VA is currently developing program management documentation, including a draft memorandum of agreement to outline the relationship and operation of the program between VA, DOL, and key representatives at the executive- and working- group levels.
The implementation of the Veterans Retraining Assistance Program will include an outreach program for the appropriate target population. VA will use a variety of means and resources available to raise awareness about this new retraining benefit program, including the GI Bill Web site and the Education Service Facebook page.
As VA and DOL work together to successfully implement the new training program many intricacies will need to be worked out within the timeframe provided by the law.
Enhancements to Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment Services
The new law will also enhance services provided by VA’s Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment (VR&E) program. The law extends VA’s authority to provide vocational rehabilitation services to injured, active-duty Servicemembers, and promotes collaboration between VR&E and other organizations to provide additional services to aid Veterans’ transition to civilian employment. This law also allows VR&E to fund special employer incentives for Veterans who did not previously qualify for on-the-job training. In addition, VR&E can now provide an additional 12 months of benefits to Veterans who have exhausted their unemployment benefits, and also is now able to provide additional services to assist Veterans returning to employment. I would now like to provide specific information regarding implementation for each of the VR&E provisions.
Section 222 – Individualized assessment on equivalence between military occupational specialty (MOS) and qualifications for private sector employment
This section requires DOL, in consultation with the Department of Defense (DoD) and VA, to contract for a study to identify equivalencies between MOS-related skills and civilian employment. VA will work with DOL and DoD to review existing job-skill translators and to support the analysis required for DoD to comply with the requirement to ensure that all Transition Assistance Program participants receive an individualized assessment of civilian positions in the private sector for which they may qualify based on their military experience. DoD is expected to begin providing the individualized assessments to Servicemembers and sharing them with DOL and VR&E in November 2012. VR&E will be able to immediately use the assessments provided by DoD to develop education and employment goals for transitioning Veterans that have applied for VA education or VR&E benefits.
Section 231 – Two-year extension to provide Vocational Rehabilitation to Servicemembers
Section 231 of the bill provides a two-year extension of section 1631(b)(2) of Public Law 110-181. This provision expedites rehabilitation services by allowing automatic eligibility and entitlement to VR&E services to be granted to active-duty Servicemembers referred by DoD with severe injuries or illnesses through
December 31, 2014. This provision will enable VR&E to provide rehabilitation services, including career counseling, retraining, and placement services, to active-duty Servicemembers early in the disability evaluation process. In addition, it allows VA to help Servicemembers with maintaining or obtaining a new MOS, or to prepare them for civilian employment that does not aggravate their service-connected injuries.
A memorandum of understanding (MOU) with DoD is in place, and VR&E has drafted procedures for immediate implementation. This MOU implements VR&E counseling for Servicemembers transitioning through the Integrated Disability Evaluation System (IDES) at designated locations. Early access to VR&E services and assistance offers Servicemembers resources that aid their recovery, transition, and reintegration into civilian life. Eligible Servicemembers will be referred to VR&E if they are: evaluated by a DoD or VA physician and are determined to have a severe injury or illness that could cause their referral into the IDES; assigned to a Service’s Wounded Warrior program and are participating in the Education and Employment Initiative (E2I) program; or being processed through the IDES and referred to a Physical Evaluation Board. The IDES project plan, which provides for 110 VR&E counselors to be stationed at selected IDES sites in FY 2012, will enable aggressive implementation of this section. VR&E expects to begin providing these services in February 2012.
Section 232 – Expand VA authority to pay employers for on-the-job training
Section 232 of the bill allows VA to expand the Special Employer Incentive (SEI) program to employers who hire Veterans participating in a VR&E program even if the Veteran has not completed a training program. Prior to this law, a Veteran needed to have completed rehabilitation services, such as job retraining or education, in order to qualify for SEI. As a result of this legislation, VR&E will implement use of the SEI program for Veterans who choose to pursue employment, even if they were unable to fully complete their training programs, as well as for those Veterans who pursue a program consisting of solely employment services. VR&E is drafting procedures and developing staff training so that this provision may be implemented by January 20, 2012.
Section 233 – Additional VR&E services to Veterans with exhausted rights to unemployment benefits
Section 233 of the bill entitles Veterans who have completed a VR&E program and exhausted state unemployment benefits to an additional 12 months of vocational rehabilitation services. This legislative authority enables VR&E to provide services to Veterans who continue to struggle in obtaining employment. These services include an additional short-term training program, extensive job-seeking skills training, and job-placement services. It also allows for the provision of employment services to Veterans who are beyond the 12-year delimiting date and are not determined to have a serious employment handicap. VR&E will work with DOL to identify and conduct outreach to Veterans who may qualify for these services. VR&E will be ready to accept referrals and applications in February 2012 so that rehabilitation programs for these individuals may be in place on June 1, 2012, the effective date of this provision.
Sec. 262. Extension of reduced pension for certain veterans covered by Medicaid plans for services
In section 262, Congress extended through September 30, 2016, the provisions of 38 U.S.C. § 5503(d), which limit to $90 the pension payable to certain recipients of Medicaid-covered nursing home care, and protect that pension payment from being applied to the cost of the recipient’s nursing home care. This limitation was previously set to expire on May 31, 2015. Because section 262 extends existing authority, which VA already implemented, we anticipate no delay in implementing the revised law.
Sec. 264. Extension of authority for Secretary of Veterans Affairs to obtain information from Secretary of Treasury and Commissioner of Social Security for income verification purposes
In section 264, Congress extended through September 30, 2016, VA’s authority under 38 U.S.C. § 5317 to enter into data matching agreements with the Internal Revenue Service and the Social Security Administration. This authority expired on September 30, 2011. VA uses this authority to identify reporting discrepancies by beneficiaries in the Department’s income-based programs. Because section 264 extends existing authority, which VA already implemented, we anticipate no delay in implementing the revised law.
Section 265 – Extend VA Home Loan Funding Fees
As you know, on October 5, 2011, Public Law 112-37 extended VA’s home loan funding fees at a higher rate structure through November 17, 2011.
On November 18, those fees reset to a lower rate structure, as prescribed in statute. In response to the reset, our Home Loan Guaranty program took action to provide Veterans, our program lenders, and key industry trade groups with guidance regarding the closing of loans during this time period. The Home Loan Guaranty program issued a program policy circular containing the necessary guidance, and posted that, along with a newsflash, to its Web site. We also ensured that Treasury’s Funding Fee Payment System (FFPS), wherein lenders remit the funding fees to Treasury, was properly coded with the lower rate structure.
With the approval of Public Law 112-56 on November 21, funding fees were once again set at the higher rate structure. Specifically, section 265 of the law amended 38 U.S.C. § 3729(b)(2) by extending VA's authority to collect certain fees and by adjusting the amount of the fees, through September 30, 2016. The Home Loan Guaranty program once again communicated these important program changes to Veterans and the mortgage industry. VA personally contacted the Home Loan program’s largest lenders and several key industry trade groups to notify them of the bill signing and of the new funding fee rates. VA also drafted and posted a new program policy circular, which announced the signing of the bill, and outlined the fees in effect. This circular, along with another news update about the bill signing and the new fee rates, was posted to the Home Loan program’s website on the day after the bill was approved. Additionally, VA worked with Treasury to update FFPS with the current rate structure. We are not aware of any Veterans having difficulty closing their VA-guaranteed home loans during this time period.
As you know, Mr. Chairman, there is one provision in the bill not connected with VBA that relates to ambulance reimbursement. That is a subject of Veteran Health Administration operations, so I will not address it in this testimony, other than to note my understanding that VA has brought one technical issue to the Committee staff’s attention, as well as their counterparts in the Senate.
Mr. Chairman, this concludes my statement. I would be pleased to answer any questions you or other Members of the Subcommittee may have.
MATERIAL SUBMITTED FOR THE RECORD
Questions from Honorable Bill Johnson to Mr. Curtis Coy, Deputy Under Secretary for Economic Opportunity, Veterans Benefits Administration, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs
Mr. Johnson: Can you explain how employment service staff will provide retraining and VRE applicants' names to the VA?
Mr. COY: That's one of the procedures and one that they have passed through is one of the complex problems. We have not figured it out yet, to be quite frank. We've begun those discussions, but I don't have an answer right now.
Mr. JOHNSON: Do you have a timeframe to -- to resolve that?
VBA Response: VBA will leverage the existing VA electronic application system (VONAPP). It will be modified to allow DOL access to submit Veterans' applications to VA. There is no retraining required for VBA staff, as VONAPP data is electronically transferred into VA's processing systems. There would only be minimal training required for DOL staff to enter the applications, as VONAPP is designed to be used directly by our Veterans and is therefore user-friendly. VA and DOL have not finalized a date when DOL will receive access to the system, but DOL will be able to submit applications to VA prior to July 1, 2012.