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Submission For The Record of Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors

We are pleased to have the opportunity to submit this testimony on behalf of the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS).

TAPS is the national organization providing compassionate care for the families of America’s fallen military heroes. TAPS provides peer-based emotional support, grief and trauma resources, grief seminars and retreats for adults, Good Grief Camps for children, online and in-person care groups, casework assistance, connections to community-based care, and a 24/7 resource and information helpline for all who have been affected by a death in the Armed Forces. Services are provided to families at no cost to them. We do all of this without financial support from the Department of Defense. TAPS is funded by the generosity of the American people. 

TAPS was founded in 1994 by a group of surviving families following the deaths of their loved ones in a military plane crash. Since then, TAPS has offered comfort and care to more than 40,000 people. The journey through grief following a military death can be isolating and the long-term impact of grief is often not understood in our society today. On average, it takes a person experiencing a traumatic loss five to seven years to reach his or her “new normal.”
 

TAPS has extensive contact with the surviving families of America’s fallen military service members, making TAPS uniquely qualified to comment on issues affecting the survivors left behind. TAPS received an average of 13 newly bereaved survivors per day in 2012. Survivors are referred to TAPS through our relationships with the Armed Services casualty assistance officers and direct contact from those who are grieving the death of someone who died while serving the Armed Forces.

In 2012, 4,807 new survivors came to TAPS for comfort and care. In 2013, the number of newly-bereaved military families coming to TAPS for care and support continues to climb. Between January 1 and October 24, 2013, TAPS sadly welcomed 3,471 newly bereaved survivors for care and support. Causes of death were reported as follows by military families turning to TAPS for help and support:
Suicide or suicide suspected                                          22.88 % (794)
Hostile action/killed in action/Navy Yard shooting           22.47 % (780)
Accident – auto/aviation/other                                        22.13 % (768)
Sudden illness                                                                17.11 % (594)
Unknown cause of death                                                10.89 % (378)
Homicide                                                                         2.74 % (95)
Non-hostile/non-combat incidents                                   1.73 % (60)
Friendly-fire                                                                     0.06 % (2)

We would like to submit the following statement on adjudicating VA’s most complex disability claims.

Survivor benefits are intrinsically linked to veteran disability claims filed with the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Eligibility for VA survivor benefits for the surviving spouse and/or children hinges on establishing a military service connection to the cause of death. When a service connection is not recognized by the VA, the surviving spouse and/or children will often struggle to obtain survivor benefits.

These benefits and services provided by the VA for spouses, children and parents of service members and veterans are significant and can directly impact the quality of life for survivors. These benefits can include: dependency and indemnity compensation, parents’ dependency and indemnity compensation, survivors’ pension, the dependents’ educational assistance program, the post-9/11 G Bill: Marine Gunnery Sergeant John David Fry Scholarship program, and home loans. Survivors can also receive the following services from the VA if they are eligible: educational and vocational counseling, beneficiary financial counseling, civil service preference, commissary and exchange privileges, and fiduciary services.

The following data is from the quarterly Monday Morning Workload Reports published online by the Veterans Benefits Administration (http://www.vba.va.gov/reports/mmwr/).

VA MMWR Reports

 

Number pending

Number pending over 125 days

Percentage pending 125 days or more

Initial claims from surviving spouses, children or parents

Dec 2, 2013

7,886

1,996

25.3%

Sep 30, 2013

8,198

1,997

24.4%

July 1, 2013

7,609

1,626

21.4%

Apr 1, 2013

10,853

4,392

40.5%

Dec 31, 2012

13,833

6,001

43.4%

Oct. 1, 2012

13,472

5,454

40.5%

July 2, 2012

13,538

5,477

40.5%

Award adjustments (dependency) *

Dec 2, 2013

227,158

161,043

69.3%

Sep 30, 2013

212,434

152,005

71.6%

Jul 1, 2013

199,366

145,880

73.2%

April 2013

186,175

137,054

73.6%

Dec 31, 2012

169,865

117,142

69.0%

Oct. 1, 2012

155,682

92,852

59.6%

July 2, 2012

127,337

69,735

54.8%

Pension – initial entitlement (survivor)

Dec 2, 2013

29,862

18,777

62.9%

Sep 30, 2013

35,203

22,748

64.6%

July 1, 2013

47,047

28,705

61.0%

Apr 1, 2013

48,511

32,082

66.1%

Dec 31, 2012

49,658

31,616

63.7%

Oct. 1, 2012

46,883

27,519

58.7%

July 2, 2012

46,724

25,869

55.4%

Burial benefits

Dec 2, 2013

45,312

N/A

N/A

Sep 30, 2013

45,671

N/A

N/A

July 1, 2013

51,078

N/A

N/A

April 2013

62,094

N/A

N/A

Dec 31, 2012

63,979

N/A

N/A

Oct. 1, 2012

63,126

N/A

N/A

July 2, 2012

66,754

N/A

N/A

Accrued benefits **

Dec 2, 2013

15,750

N/A

N/A

Sep 30, 2013

15,366

N/A

N/A

July 1, 2013

14,543

N/A

N/A

Apr 1, 2013

14,228

N/A

N/A

Dec 31, 2012

13,098

N/A

N/A

Oct. 1, 2012

11,906

N/A

N/A

July 2, 2012

10,807

N/A

N/A

Appeals (includes veterans and survivors)

Dec 2, 2013

266,407

N/A

N/A

Sep 30, 2013

258,077

N/A

N/A

July 1, 2013

250,973

N/A

N/A

Apr 1, 2013

248,422

N/A

N/A

Dec 31, 2012

252,779

N/A

N/A

Oct. 1, 2012

254,409

N/A

N/A

July 2, 2012

255,803

N/A

N/A

* Award adjustments: Involves the modification of benefits based upon additional ancillary factors. Such activity usually occurs when a Veteran or survivor is currently entitled and receiving benefits, such as adjudication of dependency issues.

** Accrued benefits: Benefits not paid prior to the death of a Veteran or survivor based upon a pending claim at the time of death which is later granted.

Progress has clearly been made by the VA in 2013 to reduce the number of survivors waiting over 125 days for benefits who are filing initial claims, pension claims, or burial benefits. These categories show some improvements, with volume lowering.

Even with these improvements, thousands continue to wait over 125 days (more than four months) for benefits to be processed. The number of survivors waiting for award adjustments (dependency), accrued benefits and appeals continues to climb.

TAPS is seeing an increasing number of survivors seeking assistance with complex VA claims for survivor benefits. In these situations, military service connection to the cause of death is not established prior to the death, often because the veteran had not applied for VA disability compensation for him or herself prior to the death, and because the death was not an active duty death.

In these situations where service connection to the death, and therefore eligibility for survivor benefits, is denied by the VA, the grieving survivor must prepare evidence and appeal to the VA in order to qualify for survivor benefits. Often these cases involve a veteran who died by suicide. Their traumatized families must compile significant dossiers including military service records, health records, and statements from colleagues and friends of the veteran. Often these appeals can take years, while the surviving spouse, children and parents suffer without the benefits to which they are entitled to under law.

In one case, a widow of a Navy veteran who died by suicide at age 29 in 2011, has spent the last two years attempting to prove service connection to her husband’s death and been denied twice by the VA. At the time of the death, their dependent children were ages 5 and 7. Her husband was under VA care at the time of his death, attempted suicide while under VA care, and he did not file a claim for VA disability compensation while alive because he felt there were others who were more deserving of support. There are medical treatment records on file for him but he did not apply for service connected disability compensation prior to his death. She states that one of his VA caseworkers said to her that if he wanted to die by suicide, there was nothing that she could do to stop it. She believes her husband’s problems may have been linked to problems he experienced coming out of anesthesia for a hernia surgery at the VA. After the surgery, his wife states that his mental health declined and he talked about trauma he had been exposed to while in the military. She interred her husband in a national cemetery managed by the VA in Bushnell, Florida. She states that a month after his funeral, she received a letter from the VA saying his military personnel and service records were lost, so she had to scan his entire service jacket and send it to the VA in order to apply for survivor benefits. Her applications for benefits have been denied twice. The widow and their two young surviving children would benefit greatly from the benefits that military service connection to the death would permit. She is currently making a decision on whether to appeal the VA’s decision and attempt again to prove service connection to the death. Her case illustrates many of the challenges survivors with complex VA claims face.

We thank the subcommittee for accepting our statement.

 

DISCLOSURE STATEMENT
The Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) has not received any Federal grant or contract, relevant to the subject matter of this statement, during the current or previous two fiscal years.