Joint Hearing of the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs of the U.S. Senate and the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs of the U.S. House of Representatives at 1:00 p.m. CDT.
Submission For The Record of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America
Chairman Runyan, Ranking Member Titus and distinguished members of the subcommittee, on behalf of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) I would like to extend our gratitude for being given the opportunity to share with you our views and recommendations regarding H.R. 569, H.R. 570, H.R. 602, H.R. 671, H.R. 679, H.R. 733, H.R. 894 and H.R. 1405.
IAVA is the nation’s first and largest nonprofit, nonpartisan organization for veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and their supporters. Founded in 2004, our mission is critically important but simple – to improve the lives of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans and their families. With a steadily growing base of over 200,000 members and supporters, we strive to help create a society that honors and supports veterans of all generations.
IAVA is pleased to offer our support for H.R. 569, the “Veterans' Compensation Cost of Living Adjustment Act of 2013.” This bill will give qualified disabled veterans and their dependents annual Cost of Living Adjustments (COLA) starting in December 2013. Tough economic times have placed a heavy burden on our wounded veterans and the limited resources they are afforded. As the cost of living increases, wounded veterans are forced to make difficult financial decisions with resources that may be insufficient to address economic realities particular to their needs. In order to receive an increase in benefits, veterans must rely on legislation authorizing an increase in annual COLA. HR 569 increases the rates for qualified disabled veterans and their dependents starting in December 2013. This legislation will help protect the financial stability of our disabled veterans and their families. H.R. 569 helps to ensure that the deserved benefits earned by our veterans remain protected.
IAVA supports H.R. 570, the “American Heroes COLA Act,” which will make veterans’ Cost of Living Adjustments (COLA) permanent, similar to Social Security benefits. Cost of Living Adjustments in veterans’ benefits, like Social Security benefits, are based on the Consumer Price Index-Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers (CPIW). However, unlike Social Security benefit increases, veterans’ benefit increases rely on Congress to pass legislation authorizing an increase each year. Financial planning by our veterans requires them to take into account COLA rates that may or may not increase. H.R. 570 authorizes the Secretary of Veterans Affairs (VA) to automatically increase COLA benefits annually based upon the CPIW rate. This legislation will help protect the financial stability of our disabled veterans and their families, as well as eliminating an extra redundant step in the annual COLA process.
IAVA supports H.R. 602, the “Veterans 2nd Amendment Protection Act.” Inaccurate information on mental health and gun ownership rights feeds the false rhetoric and misinformation of veterans and mental health, thus adding to the stigmas attached to seeking mental health care. IAVA believes this bill will help reduce the stigma surrounding PTSD by creating a fair appeals process for veterans who may have been wrongly or automatically categorized as unfit to own or purchase firearms. IAVA strongly supports this bill.
IAVA supports H.R. 671, the “Ruth Moore Act of 2013.” This bill will improve the VA claims disability process for victims of military sexual assault who suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and other mental health conditions. Current VBA policy requires a diagnosis of PTSD, medical link to diagnosis, and evidence verifying the occurrence of sexual assault in order to receive a service connected disability rating for Military Sexual Trauma (MST). Furthermore, vast inconsistencies remain among VA offices when considering secondary evidence. Under H.R. 671 a veteran will be granted service connection for PTSD if the veteran states he or she was sexually assaulted in the military, is diagnosed with PTSD or related mental health condition and has a medical nexus between the two. This will give MST victims who suffer from PTSD the same standard of proof that other veterans with PTSD have. IAVA supports this important piece of legislation.
IAVA supports H.R. 679, the “Honor America’s Guard-Reserve Retirees Act.” Any man or women who chooses to enlist and serve their country deserves, at minimum, to be called a veteran. If a veteran devotes years of their life to being ready to serve at a moment’s notice is admirable and selfless. These men and women served honorably and should not be penalized simply because their country did not call upon them to actively serve.
IAVA supports H.R. 733, the “Access to Veterans Benefits Improvement Act.” This bill is another step in the right direction to ending the VA claims backlog. This bill provides certain employees of members of Congress and certain employees of state or local governmental agencies access to VA case-tracking information, while still protecting veteran’s privacy. This bill will help provide stricter oversight on the actions of VA and the steps that they are taking to eliminate the claims backlog.
IAVA supports H.R. 894, to amend title 38, United States Code, to improve the supervision of fiduciaries of veterans under the laws administered by the Secretary of Veterans Affairs. A fiduciary is a person appointed by VA to determine what is in the best interest of a veteran. However, in recent years there have been numerous problems identified within this program. The VSO community, including IAVA, has voiced concerns that many fiduciaries have moved away from the original intent of the program (protecting the best financial interest of disabled veterans) to more of an investment banking style and not veteran-centric at all. This is not, nor will it ever be in the best interest of a veteran. We believe this legislation is a step in the right direction in addressing many current problems. This bill will add transparency, redesign the fiduciary commission model and help protect the best interest of the veterans using this program. Again, while IAVA supports this bill we caution that there is still much to be done in correcting the fiduciary program and sincerely hope this committee will continue to correct these issues through additional pieces of good legislation, like HR 894.
Finally, IAVA strongly supports H.R. 1405, to amend title 38, United States Code, to require the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to include an appeals form in any notice of decision issued for the denial of a benefit sought. Currently, when veterans receive a rating decision and they wish to appeal it, they must request an appeals form from the VA and then wait for the VA to send them the form. This unnecessary and burdensome process typically takes 60 days. HR 1405 is expected to reduce the need for the VA to mail more than 100,000 unnecessary letters annually to veterans appealing their decision and will save the VA approximately 50,000 man hours. The VA is working to reduce the disability claims backlog, and this legislation provides an opportunity for Congress to assist. By passing this bill, Congress will instantly reduce the appeals process for veterans by 60 days. A similar provision was passed with bipartisan support by the House Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs during the 112th Congress.
We again appreciate the opportunity to offer our views on these important pieces of legislation, and we look forward to continuing to work with each of you, your staff, and this subcommittee to improve the lives of veterans and their families. Thank you for your time and attention.