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Witness Testimony of Clayton D. Jones, Military Order of the Purple Heart of the U.S.A., Inc., National Commander

Chairwoman Murray, Chairman Miller, Ranking Members Burr and Filner, Members of the Committees, ladies and gentlemen.

I am Clayton Jones, National Commander of the Military Order of the Purple Heart (MOPH).  It is an honor and privilege to appear before this distinguished body on behalf of the MOPH.  As all of you are aware, the MOPH is unique among Veteran Service Organizations (VSOs) because our membership is comprised entirely of combat veterans who have been wounded on the world’s battlefields for which they were awarded the Purple Heart Medal.

I am accompanied today by Junior Vice Commander Bruce McKenty, National Adjutant Jack Leonard and National Legislative Director Hershel Gober.

I would like to begin by expressing our appreciation for the work done by both committees during the 111th Congress.  The “Veterans Health Care Budget Reform and Transparency Act of 2009” is important for the operation of the VA Health Care Administration.  The “Caregivers and Veterans Omnibus Health Services Act of 2010” provides much needed support to severely injured veterans and their families. 

There were many other very good pieces of legislation that the 111th Congress acted on and for them we are very appreciative.

MOPH, as I am sure that all members of Congress do, remains in absolute support of America’s military men and women serving in harm’s way.  We further believe that upon their return home they deserve the best health care they need and that any benefits they have earned by their service should be provided in a timely manner.

In the interest of brevity I will make my oral remarks regarding the MOPH legislative priorities for 2011 brief with the understanding that my full testimony will be entered into the Record.

Our top five priorities for the 112th Congress are as follows:

ELIMINATION OF THE SURVIVOR BENEFIT PROGRAM (SBP) AND THE DEPENDENT INDEMINITY COMPENSATION (DIC) OFFSET:

For the past several years MOPH, along with other VSOs, has advocated for the repeal of the current law that reduces the amount of SBP dollar for dollar by the amount of DIC that a surviving spouse of a retired member receives.  MOPH fails to understand how anyone can believe that this is just.  The SBP was paid for by the military retiree as a way to ensure that his/her surviving spouse would receive a portion of the retired annuity that the military retiree received.  In other words, pure and simple, it is an insurance plan that the member purchased by giving up a portion of his/her retired pay. DIC administered by the VA is paid when a military retiree dies of service connected injuries or disabilities.  MOPH firmly believes that if military service causes a veteran to die, the DIC should be added to the SBP benefit and not substituted for the SBP Benefit.  The service member paid for both benefits:  SBP by paying premiums and DIC with his/her health and life.

MOPH Supports HR 178 the “Military Surviving Spouse Equity Act” and S. 260 which would amend Title 10, U. S. Code to correct this onerous situation.

CONCURRENT RECEIPT OF MILITARY RETIRED PAY AND VA DISABILITY:

This is another one of those peculiar laws that veterans, and particularly disabled veterans, have a hard time understanding.  Congress has over the past few years made minor improvements in the law, MOPH believes that if a veteran who has a VA rating of fifty percent or higher is entitled to receive military retired pay and VA compensation.  Why, in the interest of fairness, should not all retirees with a VA disability rating not be entitled to both?  By not being allowed to receive both retired pay and VA compensation, a veteran who was wounded in combat but has a rating less than fifty percent is actually paying for being wounded out of his or her military retired pay.

MOPH supports HR 333 “The Disabled Veterans Tax Termination Act” and HR 303 the “Retired Pay Restoration Act”.

MOPH believes that most members of Congress can see the unfairness of the two issues SBP/DIC offset and the Concurrent Receipt vs. VA Compensation. MOPH fully understands that Congress is moving towards austerity and limiting the financial outlays of the federal government.  MOPH members understand that to keep America strong, for which they shed their blood, we must put the financial house in order.  Throughout America’s history there have been obvious wrongs that were finally righted by the Congress.  We believe that even in these austere times ways can be found by Congress to right these two wrongs.

CONTINUED IMPROVEMENT OF THE VA CLAIMS SYSTEM:

Your committees as well as MOPH and other VSOs remain concerned with the accuracy and timelessness of the VA claims system.  We commend your committees for holding hearings and encouraging VA to move more rapidly towards solving the many problems.  We also commend the Secretary of VA for keeping this issue on the forefront of his goals to improve the service to the veterans that VA serves.  The VA is implementing new programs to streamline or improve the claim process by the “Fast Track” where the VA is testing an automated “rules-based” paperless claim processing system for the 3 new Agent Orange presumptions and the “Vantage Point” which is a blog set up by the VA to provide access to the VA staff to “chat” about their claim or questions and provide the veteran community with articles of interest prepared by various VA officials.

We encourage Congress to make available adequate funding for information technology that will permit the VA to continue to move forward aggressivelytowards the creation of a true paperless seamless transition.  The utilization of advanced technology has long been advocated by MOPH and other VSOs. We are optimistic that if VA, Congress and the VSOs work together that we can greatly improve the claims process.

MEDICARE SUBVENTION:

MOPH continues to believe that Medicare should reimburse the VA for treatment of Medicare eligible veterans’ non-service connected medical conditions.

Veterans, just as other citizens, have paid into the Medicare program and just like other citizens should be able to choose where they want to be treated.  The VA is currently precluded from billing Medicare for treatment.

In the 1990s the VA offered to treat Medicare eligible veterans for less than it was costing Medicare at that time.  Substantial savings were forecasted even then!  It would appear that in these strained fiscal times that this idea should be revisited by Congress

VA HEALTH CARE:

As I mentioned in my opening statement MOPH is thankful that Congress passed legislation, that when fully implemented by the VA, will aid many veterans in their recovery efforts.  The “Caregivers and Veterans Omnibus Health Services Act of 2010”, which is now Public Law 111-163, provides unprecedented benefits for injured veterans.  Veterans who are able to reside in their home or other residential settings will be cared for by a VA trained spouse or relative.  VA will provide a stipend and medical insurance to the caregivers.  Too many times when a service member returns home severely injured, the spouse, parents or siblings have to leave their jobs to care for their veteran.  In doing so there is a tremendous impact on the economic situation of the family and they frequently give up their own health insurance as well.  This legislation not only makes sense but will speed the healing process for both the injured veteran and the family.  MOPH encourages Congress, as we will do, to monitor the implementation of this legislation.

MOPH continues to urge continued support of those veterans suffering from Post Traumatic Stress and Traumatic Brain Injury.

EMPLOYMENT/CONTRACTING OPPORTUNITIES WITHIN THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT:

MOPH is pleased by the progress that has been made in these areas by some of the federal departments and agencies.  There is however much to be done to ensure that those who have served this country get a fair chance at the American dream.  Some studies have indicated that in 2009 the unemployment rate of veterans 18 to 24 years of age was 21 percent which far exceeds the unemployment rate of their civilian counterparts.  Many of the returning military have expressed frustration with the government hiring website, USAJobs.gov, and its many navigational difficulties.  It is our understanding that the administration is trying to correct this site.  Veterans, particularly those returning from the current conflicts, find difficulty in the government hiring process which can take many months from the time of application until the hiring process is completed.

MOPH reiterates the message made by the Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity with the same concerns that ... "job vacancies posted online rose 438,000 in January to nearly 4.3 million according to The Conference Board, so there are literally millions of jobs looking for qualified workers. The media focuses on the 15.2% unemployment rate among veterans returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan, but in terms of sheer numbers, older veterans are facing rates of unemployment that often exceeds their non-veteran peers.  The Bureau of Labor Statistics latest data shows that 725,000 or 63% of the 1,135,000 unemployed vets are 35-64 years old.  Unfortunately, those veterans have little or no access to veterans’ education/training/retraining programs.  They are also the group that tends to have the highest financial obligations like mortgages and paying for their children’s education.   We are all aware of the financial crisis facing this nation, which means we must redouble our efforts to make best use of the funds available. That means, what is the best use of the $261 million the President has requested for the Veterans Employment and Training Service in Fiscal Year 2012?  How do we increase the skills unemployed veterans can offer to the job market and then what is the best way to match veteran qualified job seekers with the right job?”

In the interest of brevity something has to be done to make the process simpler and to ensure that veterans receive their preference.  To do less is to dishonor their service.  Make veterans preference a reality.

The same can be said of the contracting opportunities of veterans owned business, particularly service disabled veterans owned business.  Departments and Agencies of the Federal government should not just talk the talk, but walk the walk when it comes to honoring the service of veterans.

MILITARY FAMILIES FINANCIAL PREPAREDNESS ACT:

MOPH supports H.R. 535, which includes financial planning for those separating military service members who are transitioning back into civilian life.

SERVICE DOGS FOR DISABLED VETERANS:

It has come to our attention that veterans who have service dogs, approved by the VA, are being denied entrance to VA facilities.  Many of the facilities only allow Seeing Eye Dogs on their premises.  MOPH has contacted the VA Secretary about this and requested that he change Code of Federal Regulations 38 to address this situation and we respectfully request that Congress pursue this issue.

THE FLAG OF THE UNITED STATES:

MOPH remains in support of a Constitutional Amendment to protect the physical desecration of our country’s flag.   MOPH supports House Joint Resolution 13.