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Submission For The Record of Kerry Baker, Disabled American Veterans, Associate National Legislative Director

Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee:

I am pleased to submit for the record, the views of the Disabled American Veterans (DAV) on the various bills under consideration today.  In accordance with its congressional charter, the DAV’s legislative mission is focused on benefits and services provided to veterans because of service-connected disabilities.  We are therefore pleased to support the bills insofar as they fall within that scope.

The DAV does not have mandates from its membership to support issues addressed within H.R. 4883, H.R. 4884, H.R. 3393, H.R. 3298, H.R. 3467, H.R. 3646, H.R. 4539, H.R. 4889, H.R. 5664, and H.R. 3798.  The provisions of these bills are also mostly outside the scope of DAV’s mission.  Nonetheless, after reviewing the bills, we have no objection to their favorable consideration.

H.R. 3681

The “Veterans Benefits Awareness Act of 2007,” or H.R. 3681, would authorize the Secretary of Veterans Affair (Secretary) to advertise in the national media to promote awareness of benefits under laws administered by the Secretary.  This is truly a novel undertaking, one that DAV does not oppose.

We note that this legislation as currently written authorizes, but does not require, the Secretary to advertise various benefits in the media.  This distinction is important.  Advertising healthcare or compensation and pensions benefits in the media will attract an unknown number of new beneficiaries into the system—a purpose for which any positive outreach program is designed.  These actions will increase VA’s claims’ backlog as well as the demand for its medical services.

There are currently over 800,000 claims pending in the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA).  This amount of backlogged claims is historic.  However, the DAV has stated on the record that legislation benefiting veterans should never be withheld merely because of its effect on VA’s claims backlog.  We nonetheless believe that enhanced outreach efforts should focus on discharging and newly discharged service members. 

The newest generation of our veterans is also the most unfamiliar generation in relation to benefits earned through their service.  This problem could be solved in part by enhanced outreach through improvements and expansion of the Transition Assistance Program (TAP), Disabled Transition Assistance Program (DTAP), and Benefits Delivery at Discharge Program (BDD).

Many veterans of World War II, the Korean War and Vietnam War, went years, if not decades prior to becoming aware of their rightful benefits.  Enhancing outreach to our newest veterans through these programs could help ensure these new generations receive timely benefits, rather than benefits decades after their service.

H.R. 3889

House bill 3889 would require the Secretary to conduct a longitudinal study of the VA’s vocational rehabilitation program.  While DAV does do not oppose the intent of this bill, we do have concerns.

The bill requires the study to begin during fiscal year 2008, which would require VA, or a contractor thereof, to begin gathering data in the arrears.  The bill also requires the study to be conducted over the course of 20 years.  We believe this length of time is unrealistic.  A more logical timeframe would be no longer than 10 years, and a possible extension thereafter.

Much of the reporting criteria is unknown, such as unemployment benefits received by veterans, the number of months such veteran was employed, starting and ending salaries, the average numbers of visits to VA medical facilities, etc.  These statistics are not readily available to VA and would have to be gathered from the veteran, who would not be required to participate in such a study. 

If VA contracted this study privately, the cost of such a long-term project may outweigh the studies benefits to the Department.  We believe the funds needed for such a potentially high-cost, long-term private contract would be better spent within the department.  There would also be certain logistical barriers to a private contractor obtaining access to the types of information requested by the study the bill requires.

Therefore, while we do not oppose the intent of this bill, we ask that the Committee to consider these concerns.

H.R. 5684

The “Veterans Education Improvement Act of 2008” would amend title 38, United States Code, to make certain improvements in the basic educational assistance program administered by the Secretary.  While the DAV has no resolution specifically pertaining to this bill, we nevertheless support the bill since the Independent Budget Veterans Service Organizations have advocated for a GI Bill for the 21st century in the Independent Budget for FY 2009.

Since the inception of the GI Bill, every generation of warriors has had this benefit to ease transition back into civilian life, which provided them an opportunity for education and served as an investment in the future of our nation.  Today’s GI Bill is not meeting the needs of our veterans, and skyrocketing education costs are forcing veterans to shoulder the bulk of college expenses. 

Moreover, young veterans are more likely to become unemployed and homeless.  A new approach to veterans’ transition, stabilization, and education is needed.  The increasing cost of education is diminishing today’s GI Bill as a veterans’ education benefit.  According to the Department of Education, the national average cost of undergraduate tuition, fees, room, and board charged to full-time students in degree-granting institutions for the 2005–06 academic school year was $17,447.  A veteran in receipt of the active duty fulltime GI Bill benefit for the same period received $9,306, approximately 53 percent of the total cost of education. 

While we agree the bill would certainly enhance educational benefits beyond what is currently provided, we suggest an amendment to the bill.  Rather than setting a specified limit of tuition cost as the bill currently proposes, we suggest the bill cover the full cost of tuition plus books, fees, and expenses; but limited to an amount not to exceed the average cost of tuition for in-state colleges in the veterans’ particular state wherein he/she attends college.  Additionally, we suggest the bill also cover room and board at a rate equal to the average college dormitory for the applicable school, or the average dormitory rate for the applicable state if no dormitory exists at the veteran’s school of choice.

These minor changes would ensure that no veteran is prohibited from pursuing his or her desired course of higher education merely because of financial constraints.  Despite our recommended changes, we nonetheless support the bill due to its obvious improvements in educational benefits for our nation’s veterans.