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Witness Testimony of Alexander Nicholson, Legislative Director, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America

Bill #

Bill Name

Sponsor

Position

H.R. 2018

Honor Those Who Served Act of 2013

Rep. Stivers

Support

H.R. 2088

A bill to establish centers of excellence for claims adjudication of complex medical conditions

Rep. Michaud

Support

H.R. 2119

Veteran Access to Speedy Review Act

Rep. Ruiz

Support

H.R. 2529

Veteran Spouses Equal Treatment Act

Rep. Titus

Support

H.R. 3671

A bill to expand eligibility for medallions furnished by VA to signify veteran status

Rep. Miller

Support

H.R. 3876

Burial with Dignity for Heroes Act of 2014

Rep. Green

Support

H.R. 4095

Veterans’ Compensation and Cost-Of-Living Adjustment Act of 2014

Rep. Runyan

Support

H.R. 4102

A bill to authorize an estate of a deceased veteran to receive accrued benefits upon death

Rep. Miller

Support

H.R. 4141

A bill to authorize VA to enter into enhanced-use leases for excess property at NCA

Rep. Crenshaw

Support

H.R. 4191

Quicker Veterans Benefits Delivery Act

Rep. Walz

Support

 

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 this important legislation that will impact the lives of IAVA’s members and all of America’s troops and veterans.

As the nation’s first and largest nonprofit, nonpartisan organization for veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, IAVA’s mission is critically important but simple – to improve the lives of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans and their families. With a steadily growing base of nearly 270,000 members and supporters, we aim to help create a society that honors and supports veterans of all generations.

In partnership with other military and veteran service and advocacy organizations, IAVA has worked tirelessly to see that our members’ needs are appropriately addressed by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and by Congress. IAVA appreciates the efforts put forth by this Subcommittee to address the challenges facing our nation's veterans and their families, and we are proud to offer our support for the legislation that is the subject of this hearing today.

H.R. 2018

IAVA supports H.R. 2018, the Honor Those Who Served Act, which would expand the list of individuals eligible to request a headstone for a veteran. Enabling additional authorized requestors will help ensure more veterans receive the recognition they deserve. IAVA supports all veterans receiving such recognition and encourages Congress to approve the proposed authorization expansion.

H.R. 2088

IAVA supports H.R. 2088, which would require the VA to establish a pilot program for claims processing “Centers of Excellence” that would focus on adjudicating disability compensation claims for certain types of medical issues.

In order to help facilitate the transition to a 21st century VA, IAVA supports utilizing practices which streamline and improve the claims adjudication process. This proposed Center of Excellence pilot program will allow the VA to develop sets of teams that will be highly proficient at processing certain types of claims. IAVA believes such Centers of Excellence hold the potential to help improve the efficiency of the claims adjudication process, and we encourage the VA to continue implementing innovative work management solutions.

However, IAVA does share some of the concerns other VSOs have raised with the potential unintended consequences of brokering claims work in this manner. While this process can potentially help the VA adjudicate claims more quickly, there are several important issues that must also be addressed if the VA plans on expanding this program beyond the pilot level.

Most importantly, the process of brokering work does not necessarily address the underlying inefficiencies and issues at under-performing regional offices. In order to improve the system overall, the internal processes and management of each regional office must be reviewed and adjusted if an office continues to be incapable of managing its own workload. The successful work flow of each and every regional office will ultimately be critical to not only eliminating the backlog by 2015, but also preventing a recurrence of the backlog in the future.

Additionally, our colleague VSOs have raised concerns about the issue of “ownership” with brokered claims. Since the VA typically processes claims in the same state or region where the claimant resides, moving claims to different states or regions of the country potentially removes a sense of “ownership” and may have an impact on the quality of many brokered claims. It is imperative that the VA address this potential ownership issue before expanding the number brokered claims. 

And finally, the effect that brokering work may have on the services and support offered by veteran service officers during the claims process must also be carefully considered. The relationships these service officers develop with veterans and claims adjudicators within their respective regional offices is important. When work is brokered to states or regions far removed from a veteran service officer, the benefit of that relationship may be lost.  The VA must work with the VSO community to ensure the critical coordination between veteran service officers and claims adjudicators is protected.   

H.R. 2119

IAVA supports H.R. 2119, the Veteran Access to Speedy Review Act, which would authorize the Board of Veterans Appeals to hold hearings at alternative locations or use videoconferencing technology in order to schedule hearings at the earliest possible date.

The number of veterans waiting on disability rating appeals decisions continues to increase. However, veterans should not have to wait for a hearing due to simple logistical concerns. Efforts to hold appeals hearings at the earliest possible date is critical to the VA addressing claims appeals in a timely manner.  Additionally, IAVA supports the right of the veteran to object to alternative locations or hearing types while still being offered the earliest possible hearing date.

H.R. 2529

IAVA supports H.R. 2529, the Veteran Spouses Equal Treatment Act, which would amend the definition of “spouse” within Title 38 to recognize all valid marriages for the purposes of receiving all VA benefits.

The need for equitable access to benefits and VA services for all veterans and their families is critical to ensuring the VA is providing the highest level of care and services, and also to making sure that VA is on par with what DoD is offering to troops. IAVA supports equitable treatment of all veterans and their families and supports the changes this legislation seeks to make to Title 38. However, Section 103(c) of Title 38 must also be amended to make the proposed changes effective. IAVA encourages this Subcommittee to also amend Section 103(c) of Title 38.

H.R. 3671

IAVA supports H.R. 3671, which expands the eligibility for medallions furnished by the VA to signify the veteran status of a deceased individual. If a veteran is buried in a private cemetery, the VA may provide a headstone or marker to signify veteran status. In lieu of a headstone or marker, the VA may also provide a medallion to signify veteran status. This legislation amends Title 38 to authorize these medallions regardless of the date of death of the veteran. IAVA believes that all veterans deserve proper honor and recognition and, therefore, we support this change in law.

H.R. 3876

IAVA supports H.R. 3876, the Burial with Dignity for Heroes Act of 2014, which would provide grants to cover the burial costs of homeless veterans.

All veterans deserve the dignity and honor earned with military service, and no veteran should be forgotten simply because of homelessness. Until veteran homelessness is eradicated, it is imperative that the VA ensure all veterans are honored with dignity at burial regardless of their personal situation. 

H.R. 4095

IAVA supports H.R. 4095,  the Veterans’ Compensation and Cost-Of-Living Adjustment Act of 2014, which would provide an increase in the rates of compensation for veterans with a service-connected disability and the rates of dependency and indemnity compensation for survivors of certain veterans. 

The rates of service-connected disability compensation and dependency and indemnity compensation for survivors must be adjusted to account for inflation. These adjustments are necessary to continue providing veteran and survivor compensation rates that are adequate for increased cost-of-living expenses.

As the December 2013 budget deal demonstrated, veterans and their families are not exempt from budget cuts and fiscal limitations. However, earned benefits should never be compromised. This proposed statutory cost-of-living adjustment is needed to safeguard compensation benefits for veterans and their families.  IAVA believes that veterans and survivors should always be guaranteed fiscal security that is adjusted to account for a changing economy.

H.R. 4102

IAVA supports H.R. 4102, which would authorize the estate of a deceased veteran to receive accrued benefits upon the death of the veteran.

The case of Sergeant First Class (SFC) Shelton Hickerson, mentioned in this legislation, is an unfortunate illustration of the hardship that long wait times and multiple appeals can place on veterans and their families. SFC Hickerson was a retired Vietnam veteran who had multiple strokes, two of which occurred while still on active duty.  He spent over a decade waiting for his disability compensation claim to be accurately adjudicated, but he passed away one day before receiving his final adjudication.

Unfortunately, SFC Hickerson’s story is not unique. As currently written, if a veteran does not have a spouse or any children under the age of 18, the earned benefits remain in with the U.S. Treasury. In addition to its responsibility to serve and care for the veteran, a core aspect of VA’s mission is also to care for the survivors of veterans. As a result, it is logical that VA has a responsibility to grant the estate of a veteran all accrued benefits if a veteran dies while stuck in the claims process.

H.R. 4141

IAVA supports H.R. 4141, which authorizes the VA to enter into enhanced-use leases for excess property unsuitable for burial within the domain of the National Cemetery Administration (NCA).

The VA’s enhanced-use lease program is considered an innovative asset management program within the government. It allows the VA to optimize its asset management capabilities by entering into agreements with entities that utilize VA facilities to contribute to the overall mission of the VA. Specifically looking at land owned by the NCA, IAVA supports land unsuitable for burial should being eligible for enhanced-use leases in order to maximize the capabilities of the NCA while effectively managing all assets. 

H.R. 4191

IAVA supports H.R. 4191, the Quicker Veterans Benefits Delivery Act, which would improve the treatment of medical evidence provided by non-VA medical professionals in support of disability compensation claims.

IAVA strongly supports efforts to minimize the burden placed on veterans when filing disability compensation claims. If a veteran provides medical evidence from a licensed medical professional that supports their claim with the VA, the VA should consider this evidence with the same gravity as medical evidence from VA medical professionals. As currently written, Title 38 states that the VA may consider evidence from non-VA medical professionals, but does not require the VA to consider this type of evidence. Title 38 should be amended to eliminate this ambiguity.

Mr. Chairman, we at IAVA 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.

 

Bio of Alexander Nicholson
Legislative Director, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America

Alexander Nicholson serves as the Legislative Director for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA). As one of IAVA’s top advocates on Capitol Hill, Mr. Nicholson helps shape IAVA’s legislative strategies and priorities throughout the year. He is responsible for developing relationships, assisting in advocacy efforts, and implementing IAVA’s Policy Agenda. Prior to joining IAVA, Mr. Nicholson founded and led the advocacy group Servicemembers United for the preceding seven years.

Mr. Nicholson holds a Bachelors degree in international affairs from the University of South Carolina, a Masters degree in public administration from the University of North Georgia, and is currently completing the dissertation on his Ph.D. in political science from the University of South Carolina.

 

Statement on Receipt of Federal Grant or Contract Funds

Neither Mr. Nicholson nor the organization he represents, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, has received federal grant or contract funds relevant to the subject matter of this testimony during the current or two previous fiscal years.