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Witness Testimony of Bradley G. Mayes, Veterans Benefits Administration, Director, Compensation and Pension Service, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee, thank you for the opportunity to testify today on five bills.  We did not receive the text of the Veterans Quality of Life Study Act of 2007 in sufficient time to provide our views today.  We will address the bill in a subsequent letter to the Subcommittee.

H.R. 1137

The first bill, H.R. 1137, would increase the monthly rate of the Medal of Honor special pension from $1,000 to $2,000 and would require VA to pay the special pension to the surviving spouse of a person who was awarded a Medal of Honor if the surviving spouse was married to that person either for at least one year or for any period of time if a child was born to them before or during their marriage.  It would also prohibit a surviving spouse from receiving more than one Medal of Honor special pension based on multiple marriages, but would permit the special pension to be paid despite the remarriage of a surviving spouse if the remarriage occurred after the surviving spouse attained age 57 or has been terminated by death or divorce, unless the Secretary determines that the divorce was secured through fraud or collusion.  It would also permit the special pension to be paid to a surviving spouse if the surviving spouse ceases living with another person and holding himself or herself out openly to the public as that person’s spouse.  These provisions would apply to special pension payments made for months beginning after the date of enactment of the bill.

VA does not oppose H.R. 1137, subject to Congress finding offsets for the increased costs.  The benefit cost is estimated to be $11.9 million during the first year, $58.8 million for five years, and $113.0 million over ten years.

H.R. 3047

Section 2 of H.R. 3047, the “Veterans Claims Processing Innovation Act of 2007,” would require VA to establish a work credit system for evaluating regional offices (ROs).  Under the system, ROs would receive work credit for a claim only after the appellate period for the claim has expired or the Board of Veterans’ Appeals issues a final decision on the claim.

We do not support section 2 of H.R. 3047 for several reasons.  First, the term “work credit” is undefined, and it is unclear whether and to what extent “work credit” would be relevant to the operation or funding of VA’s regional offices.  Moreover, withholding work credit until after the one-year appellate period has passed, or until the claim is finally decided by the Board of Veterans’ Appeals (Board), will likely delay our ability to provide feedback to RO directors, individual employees, and their supervisors.  Moreover, once the work credit is assigned it is unlikely to produce any meaningful data about the current status of a particular regional office.  Individual claims can be the subject of multiple remands by the Board or may be developed after the notice of disagreement is filed or post-remand.  In such cases, work credit might not be assigned for more than a year after the issuance of the RO decision.  Waiting for such an extended period is likely to conceal organizational weaknesses, such as in training or official guidance. 

Most VA claims are resolved well within one year after the claim is filed.  In FY 2007, only 12 percent of claims resulted in the filing of a notice of disagreement, and substantive appeals were filed in only 5 percent of cases.  Yet, H.R. 3047 would require VA to wait one year before assigning credit for all cases, making it extremely difficult to monitor both VA’s progress and the magnitude of the workload still awaiting action.  As such it would provide a distorted picture of VA’s performance and current needs.  We must have accurate information for budgetary and long-range planning, resource allocation, workload management, and performance accountability.  This proposal would render our basic management systems and principles ineffective.

There are no mandatory costs associated with this section, as it has no effect on benefit entitlement.  We have not had sufficient time to consider any potential discretionary costs, but cost is not our primary concern regarding this bill.  Rather, we are concerned with how the bill would impede workload and performance management.

Section 3 of H.R. 3047 would require VA to develop and maintain a claims processing system employing “artificial intelligence” that uses medical and military service data to generate recommended disability ratings.  Under the bill, VA would be required to maintain one RO that would exclusively process claims electronically under this system, and that RO would be required to electronically scan all files created or submitted to that office in connection with a claim.  VA would be required to submit quarterly reports to Congress on the status of the system during the period beginning 90 days after enactment of this section and extending through the first full fiscal year of operations of the RO employing this system. 

We do not support this section for many reasons.  We believe that the use of rules-based and decision-support technologies can be greatly expanded in the near term to automate and streamline much of the claims process, and we are working aggressively toward that end.  However, we do not believe it is feasible in the near future to entirely remove the human element from the decision process for all veterans' claims.  We also do not believe it is possible to accomplish all of this simultaneously at one physical location.  Because the programs we administer are national in scope, we further believe that ensuring consistency in outcome for veterans becomes much more difficult if processed using different systems and processes.  We therefore believe it is better to approach the integration of new technologies, including rules-based processing, by systematically developing process component requirements through business modeling and introducing technology changes incrementally at a national level, rather than attempting to change all processes at a single regional office location.

The administrative costs and burdens of establishing such a program would be significant.

However, we note that VA is engaged in an aggressive planning effort to identify opportunities for using technology to improve efficiencies in claims processing.  We are taking a multi-faceted approach to this important endeavor.  Specific efforts we are currently exploring include:

  • Expansion of the use of electronic records and image management technology.  This includes the collection and use of both images and data to create a paperless claims file, and enhances our current paperless claims processing initiative. 
  • Investment in the development of claims processing assistance tools, such as rules-based engines, knowledge couplers, and evidence organization software.  A recently published Request for Information (RFI) has yielded a variety of potential products that may meet our needs in this area.  We are currently meeting with respondents and are encouraged by the potential we have seen in their presentations.
  • Development of electronic processes for submission of applications for VA benefits.  This will facilitate the receipt of electronic claim information and provide the initial data load into the claims processing systems.  This is a critical first step in the paperless claims process, avoiding the receipt of paper and eliminating re-keying of data to begin the claims process.

VA has received $20 million in a supplemental appropriation to support the initiatives described above.  We believe that we will be in a position to execute necessary contracts to support implementation of our plan over the course of the next 12 months and will be able to report on our progress in approximately one year.

There are no mandatory costs associated with this section, as it has no effect on benefit entitlement.   Although we have not been able to estimate the administrative costs that would result from this provision in the time provided, they would clearly be substantial.

Section 4 would require VA, in the case where a veteran claimant dies before completing the submission of a claim, to treat as the claimant (for purposes of completing the submission of the claim) the person who would receive any accrued benefits due to the veteran under 38 U.S.C. § 5121(a)(2). 

We do not support this proposal as drafted because the reference to “completing the submission of a claim” is ambiguous and could be construed to apply to cases where there was no claim pending before VA when the veteran died.  We cannot support legislation that would enable a survivor to advance a claim that the veteran did not properly present to VA before the veteran’s death.  Allowing a survivor to advance a putative or unfiled claim could enable survivors to file claims decades after the veteran’s death.  However, we would not object to legislation that would allow the addition of evidence to a claim that was pending before VA before the veteran’s death, even if that claim had not been fully developed or adjudicated when the veteran died.  Such legislation would be consistent with the recommendation by the Veterans Disability Benefits Commission to allow the veteran’s survivors, but not a creditor, to pursue the veteran’s due but unpaid benefits and any additional benefits by continuing the claim that was pending when the veteran died, including presenting new evidence not in VA’s possession at the time of death.  Because the language of section 4 is not clearly limited to cases involving claims pending before VA at death, we cannot support it.

At this time, we are unable to estimate the cost of this section because we do not have sufficient data to determine the number of veterans who die with an “incomplete” claim (i.e., a claim that a veteran would have provided additional evidence for had he or she not died).  Additionally, we cannot determine whether their claims would be granted with a compensable evaluation.  Further, the amount of any accrued benefits payable would depend on the status of the substituted party (i.e., whether the substituted party is a surviving spouse, qualifying child, or parent; or is the person paying last expenses).

Section 5(a) would require VA to contract with a private entity to evaluate  those items in VA’s annual report required by 38 U.S.C. § 7734 that relate to training and performance assessment programs for employees responsible for matters relating to compensation or pension benefits.  The private entity would be required to provide the results of the evaluation to VA not less than 180 days after the date of enactment of this bill.  Under section 5(b), VA would be required to submit those results to Congress in the first annual report submitted pursuant to 38 U.S.C. § 529 after VA receives those results, but not later than 180 days after the date of enactment of this bill.  We note that there is an apparent inconsistency in the time requirements of section 5(b), because the timing of the first end-of-fiscal-year report under 38 U.S.C. § 529 following VA’s receipt of the evaluation results will most likely be beyond the 180-day period following enactment of this bill.  Under section 5(c), VA would be required to report to Congress not later than 180 days after it submits the report required under section 5(b) on any actions it has taken or plans to take in response to the results of the evaluation.

There has been significant attention given to VA’s quality assurance and training programs in recent months.  The Center for Naval Analyses reviewed VA’s training efforts for the Veterans’ Disability Benefits Commission and was highly complimentary of VA’s training efforts in testimony before the Commission.  Also, the Government Accountability Office, in a recent assessment of the Department of Defense’s Disability Evaluation System, referenced the VA Compensation and Pension Quality Review program as a favorable model for adoption. 

There are no mandatory costs associated with this section of the proposal as it has no effect on benefit entitlement.  It is estimated that discretionary costs for this legislation, based on previous contracts, would be approximately $2 million.  Given the recent positive reviews of VA’s quality assurance and training programs, VA does not see the need for this provision, and therefore, cannot support this provision.

H. R. 3249

H.R. 3249 would increase several monetary burial benefits provided by VA.  Section 2(a) would increase from $300 to $1,270 the benefit payable to reimburse expenses related to the burial and funeral of a veteran who dies due to a non-service-connected cause and would increase from $2,000 to $4,100 the benefit payable to reimburse expenses related to the burial and funeral of a veteran who dies due to a service-connected disease or injury.  Section 2(b) would increase the plot allowance from $300 to $745.  Section 2(c) would provide an annual cost-of-living (COLA) adjustment for both burial and funeral expenses and the plot allowance.

VA has embarked upon an independent evaluation of VA’s memorial benefits program.  The main objectives of this evaluation are to determine the extent to which the VA memorial benefits program is achieving its expected outcomes and to identify the program’s impact on the eligible veteran population.  The evaluation will assess the appropriateness of VA’s current memorial benefits and recommend changes to the program based on the data obtained and beneficiary needs.  We expect this program evaluation to be completed by April 2008.  We believe it would be premature to take a position on HR 3249 before we have completed our memorial benefits program evaluation.  Accordingly, we defer taking a position on this legislation until we have had an opportunity to review the results of this program evaluation.We estimate benefit costs of this bill would be $154.5 million during the first year, $872 million over five years, and $2.0 billion over ten years. 

H.R. 3286

H.R. 3286 would reduce to one year the period of time during which a veteran must have been rated totally disabled due to service-connected disability in order for the veteran’s survivor to receive dependency and indemnity compensation (DIC) as if the veteran’s death were service connected.  Current law requires that the veteran have been rated totally disabled for a period of ten years or more immediately preceding death; or for a period of five years or more from the date of discharge or release from active duty until the date of death; or, in the case of a former prisoner of war, for a period of one year immediately preceding death.

VA does not oppose H.R. 3286, subject to offsetting savings and subject to one amendment.  However, we believe that the bill should be amended to require the veteran’s total evaluation to be rated as permanent.  Some total evaluations are temporary.  For example, VA’s schedule for rating disabilities requires total evaluations for one full year in specific situations, such as joint replacements.  At the end of the one-year period, the veteran is re-examined and the disability reevaluated based on medical evidence showing residual disability.  We do not support the payment of DIC based on a one-year temporary 100-percent evaluation.

We estimate benefit costs of this bill would be $51.6 million during the first year, $859.1 million over five years, and $3.5 billion over ten years. 

H.R. 3415

H.R. 3415would make “servicemembers and others interred” at an American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC) cemetery eligible for placement of a memorial marker in a stateside cemetery.  We support enactment of this bill.

Currently, VA may furnish a memorial marker only for eligible individuals whose remains are unavailable because they: have not been recovered or identified; were buried at sea, whether by the individual's own choice or otherwise; were donated to science; or were cremated and the ashes scattered without interment of any portion of the ashes.

The distance and cost of travel to visit an overseas gravesite is prohibitive for many survivors of servicemembers interred in AMBC cemeteries.  Public Law 80-368 provided families a limited opportunity to repatriate the remains of servicemembers from overseas to United States soil.  Since that law expired on December 31, 1951, ABMC has accommodated the families of servicemembers interred overseas with fee-free passports for travel to the site, photographs of headstones or Tablets of the Missing on which the name of the deceased is inscribed, and an Honor Roll Certificate for Korean War casualties who are interred overseas, and by arranging for placement of gravesite floral decorations and photographs.  Nonetheless, survivors may wish a more tangible and accessible remembrance of their deceased loved one than can be provided through these measures.  Provision of a memorial marker in a stateside cemetery would address this desire.  For this reason, we do not object to this legislation.  

Typically, in national cemeteries, memorial marker sections are established where interment of remains cannot be accommodated due to site conditions.  Therefore, the provision of this benefit should not consume a substantial amount of space in national cemeteries that would otherwise be available for the interment of the remains of other eligible veterans and their family members.  Thus, we anticipate that we could make a limited amount of space available in national cemeteries for placement of these markers without impacting gravesites for interment of remains.

Although the bill’s purpose statement and sectional title refer to placement of a memorial marker in a national cemetery, as written, H.R. 3415 would also authorize VA to furnish upon request a memorial marker for placement in a state or private cemetery.  State and private cemeteries would make their own determinations concerning placement of the memorial markers.

ABMC estimates that 124,917 U.S. war dead are interred in 24 permanent ABMC cemeteries on foreign soil.  The average cost for furnishing a VA marker is $116.  VA has no data upon which to calculate how many families of those interred in an ABMC cemetery would request a memorial marker, but we anticipate that the number would be small given the passage of time since the interment of these servicemembers. 

The ABMC should be consulted regarding its views on this bill and the coordination between the agencies that this bill would require.

H.R. 3954

H.R. 3954 would authorize VA to reimburse a member of a veterans’ service organization (VSO) or other organization approved by VA for appropriate transportation and other expenses incurred in connection with the voluntary provision of funeral honors detail at the funeral of a veteran, including funeral honors detail requested by a funeral home. 

We are concerned that reimbursement under H.R. 3954 may potentially duplicate expenses paid by the Department of Defense (DoD).  DoD is required by 10 U.S.C. § 1491(a) to provide, upon request, a funeral honors detail at the funeral of any veteran.  These funeral honors are provided at national cemeteries by service members, as well as by VSOs and individual volunteers on behalf of DoD.  VSOs and individual volunteers may also perform this service at State veterans cemeteries and private cemeteries.  DoD is currently authorized by statute to reimburse persons who participate in a funeral honors detail, other than a service member who is not in a retired status or an employee of the United States, with transportation and expenses or a daily stipend.  These volunteers maintain their own log of volunteer hours and expenses. 

VA does not support H.R. 3954 for the following reasons.  To comply with H.R. 3954, the National Cemetery Administration (NCA) would have to add or reassign cemetery operations staff to manage and verify the time and attendance records of our volunteers, who devoted more than 400,000 hours in FY 2007 to our cemeteries, and reimburse them for conducting this DoD-administered program.  Also, because no funds for this purpose have been identified or included in any VA budget request, reimbursement for this unanticipated expense would most likely have to be provided from NCA's Operations and Maintenance Account, which would divert funds from the essential activities of  providing burial operations and maintaining the cemeteries as national shrines.  In addition, other VA volunteers who provide essential services at our VA medical centers, assist families at committal services, place graveside flags on Veterans Day and Memorial Day, and perform landscaping at VA national cemeteries may feel their service is less valued because they receive no reimbursement for their contributions.

We have not had sufficient time to calculate the costs associated with this bill.  We will address those costs in a subsequent letter to the Subcommittee. 

This concludes my statement, Mr. Chairman.  I would be happy now to entertain any questions you or the other members of the Committee may have.