Witness Testimony of Heather Ansley, Esq., MSW, Vice President of Veterans Policy VetsFirst, a program of United Spinal Association
Chairman Runyan, Ranking Member Titus, and other distinguished members of the subcommittee, thank you for the opportunity to testify regarding VetsFirst’s views on the bills under consideration today.
VetsFirst, a program of United Spinal Association, represents the culmination of over 60 years of service to veterans and their families. We provide representation for veterans, their dependents and survivors in their pursuit of Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) benefits and health care before VA and in the federal courts. Today, we are not only a VA-recognized national veterans service organization, but also a leader in advocacy for all people with disabilities.
Veterans’ Compensation Cost-of-Living Adjustment Act of 2013 (H.R. 569)
Disabled veterans and their survivors depend on VA benefits to provide for themselves and their families. Cost of living adjustments (COLAs) are an important aspect of ensuring that these benefits are able to meet beneficiaries’ basic needs.
This legislation will ensure that the disabled veterans and their survivors who receive these benefits are eligible for a COLA on December 1, 2013. Although the COLA received in 2012 was only 1.7 percent, this small increase is critical for disabled veterans and their survivors. We would request, however, that any increase not be rounded down to the next whole dollar amount.
We urge swift passage of this legislation which would ensure that disabled veterans and their survivors are able to benefit from any COLA increase. We also hope that Congress will ensure that this COLA is not reduced through adoption of the chained consumer price index to calculate any COLA.
American Heroes COLA Act (H.R. 570)
Disabled veterans and their survivors depend on COLAs to their benefits to meet rising costs of goods and services. These VA beneficiaries should be automatically eligible for any COLAs. Social Security beneficiaries are already automatically eligible for these adjustments.
This legislation will ensure that disabled veterans and their survivors will be automatically eligible for COLAs. The certainty of knowing that they are eligible for any potential COLA increase will provide stability and equality with other government benefits. Veterans and their survivors should not have to face the uncertainty of knowing whether or not their benefits will be adjusted.
We urge swift passage of this legislation.
Veterans 2nd Amendment Protection Act (H.R. 602)
When VA proposes to find veterans financially unable to manage their VA compensation or pension benefits, they are informed that such adjudication will prohibit them from purchasing, possessing, receiving, or transporting a firearm or ammunition. However, VA’s authority to
adjudicate a veteran or other beneficiary unable to manage his or her benefits does not grant VA the authority to take away that veteran’s constitutional rights, including his or her rights under the second amendment. This authority should be in the purview of the legal system.
For veterans with mental health concerns, fears about loss of second amendment rights could be a barrier to accessing needed care. We believe that veterans needing assistance should not be forced to weigh accessing care with the potential loss of their second amendment rights without proper legal protections.
This legislation will ensure needed judicial protections. Thus, we support this legislation.
Ruth Moore Act of 2013 (H.R. 671)
Many incidents of sexual trauma are never reported and too many of those that are reported do not result in justice for the victim. For veterans who acquired mental health conditions as the result of military sexual trauma (MST), the VA’s claims process does not fully recognize the unique difficulty in proving that the trauma occurred. According to data obtain by the Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN), 32 percent of claims for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) related to MST are approved for benefits while 54 percent of non-MST related PTSD claims are approved for benefits.
The Ruth Moore Act would ease the burden on veterans who are applying for benefits for an MST related mental health condition to prove the occurrence of sexual trauma during military service. Specifically, VA would be required to accept as sufficient proof of MST satisfactory lay or other evidence and an opinion of a mental health professional that a currently diagnosed mental health condition is related to the trauma as long the evidence is consistent with the circumstances, conditions, or hardships of such service. To ensure the integrity of the benefits process, the legislation provides that service-connection can be rebutted but only by clear and convincing evidence to the contrary.
Reporting requirements included in the legislation will help to ensure that VA properly implements the provision. This legislation requires VA to submit an annual report to Congress regarding the number of covered claims, the number and percentage approved, the number and percentage denied, and the ratings assigned for approved claims, by gender. The report will also include information about the three most common reasons provided for denials and the number of denials that resulted from the failure of the veteran to attend a required medical examination.
We support this legislation. We also urge VA to immediately take any and all actions currently available to expedite implementation.
Honor America’s Guard-Reserve Retirees Act (H.R. 679)
Lacking sufficient duty under Title 10 orders, some retired members of the Reserve Components who served 20 years and receive retiree pay are not considered veterans. This legislation
would allow these men and women who have sacrificed through long careers of service and who already receive many of the benefits of veterans the honor of being formally recognized as veterans. We fully support this legislation and urge its quick passage.
Access to Veterans Benefits Improvement Act (H.R. 733)
Veterans who have filed claims for benefits deserve to have ready access to information about the status of their claims. When a veteran is not easily able to obtain timely and accurate information from VA regarding their claim, they may contact their member of Congress or the office of a veterans representative who is affiliated with a state or county department of veterans affairs. To facilitate access for these individuals to information about the status of a veteran’s claim, this legislation would allow congressional staff and employees of state or local governmental agencies to access a claimant’s information regardless of whether the covered employees are acting under a power of attorney.
While we support the goal of ensuring that veterans receive timely information regarding the status of their claims, we are concerned that providing access to sensitive claimant information without regard to the designation of a power of attorney or written request for release of information may jeopardize the veterans’ private information. We appreciate the requirement for the covered employee to certify that each access attempt is for official purposes only and that employees complete a certification course on privacy issues. However, we feel that access to information should be limited to those for whom the covered employee has power of attorney or express written consent to review.
With proper safeguards, the ability to access information through VA’s case-tracking system could be of benefit to veterans and those who are assisting them. We also believe, however, that VA should take steps to better assist and provide accurate status information to claimants, which might limit the need for other users to access VA’s case tracking system to provide updates.
To improve the supervision of fiduciaries of veterans under the law administered by the Secretary of Veterans Affairs (H.R. 894)
VA may appoint a fiduciary for a veteran or other beneficiary when VA determines that it would be in his or her best interest. As defined by Title 38 United States Code Section 5506, a VA fiduciary is “a person who is a guardian, curator, conservator, committee, or person legally vested with the responsibility or care of a claimant (or a claimant’s estate) or of a beneficiary (or a beneficiary’s estate); or any other person having been appointed in a representative capacity to receive money paid under any of the laws administered by the Secretary for the use and benefit of a minor, incompetent, or other beneficiary.”
In a hearing before the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigation on February 9, 2012, witnesses testified about numerous problems and concerns involving VA’s fiduciary program. Some of these problems included the inability of veterans to receive needed medications due to the inaction of a VA appointed fiduciary and demands that veterans and their families provide information on all of a veteran’s finances, not just his or her VA benefits. VA has also appointed paid-fiduciaries despite the availability of competent family members and in disregard of valid powers of attorney. For other family members who serve as their veterans’ fiduciaries, the specter of the appointment of a paid-fiduciary is raised in a manner that feels threatening to these otherwise compliant fiduciaries.
Although VA has taken some steps to address concerns about the VA fiduciary program, much more must be done to ensure that the program fully meets the needs of veterans and other beneficiaries. Specifically, we believe that VA’s fiduciary program must be more veteran-centric and tailored to address only those veterans who truly need assistance due to a determination of financial incompetence. It is important to remember that these VA benefits have been earned by the veteran and that the funds belong to the veteran, even if he or she needs assistance with managing them. The program must also provide an appropriate balance between protecting the needs of veterans and placing undue burden on family members who serve as fiduciaries.
This legislation takes important steps toward ensuring that VA’s fiduciary program is more transparent and focused on the needs of veterans. For example, if VA determines that a beneficiary is incompetent then he or she must be provided with a written statement detailing the reasons for such a determination. We would like, however, specific language about the criteria VA should use in making the determination. We would also suggest that the legislation’s use of the term “mentally incompetent” does not accurately reflect the limits of VA’s role, however, which is to determine financial incompetence. Thus, we suggest that references in the legislation to mental incompetence be replaced with the term financially incompetent.
Also included in this legislation are statutory protections to ensure that beneficiaries have the ability to request the removal and replacement of a fiduciary. While the ability to request a new fiduciary is critical to ensuring that the program is veteran-centric, a request to replace a fiduciary must be carefully considered to ensure that it was made in good faith. We are also pleased that the legislation requires that any removal or new appointment of a fiduciary not delay or interrupt the beneficiary’s receipt of benefits. While matters of fiduciary appointment are being resolved, veterans must continue to have access to their benefits. Access to benefits, including retroactive benefits, while appealing a determination or completing the process for appointment of a fiduciary remains a problem for too many veterans.
We also appreciate efforts to ensure that veterans have an opportunity to play a role in determining who may serve as their fiduciary. The opportunity to designate a fiduciary in the event that one is later needed is an intriguing effort to provide veterans with the opportunity to have their preferences considered. We think it is important to note, however, that the need for a fiduciary may
arise many years after designation and that this individual may no longer represent the veteran’s preference.
This legislation also makes significant changes in the commissions that fiduciaries are able to receive for their services. We believe that a commission should only be authorized where absolutely necessary to ensure that the best possible fiduciary serves a veteran or other beneficiary. Regardless of whether the percent authorized is the current four percent or the proposed lesser of three percent or $35, our only concern is that a paid-fiduciary be available to veterans if there are no other alternatives. As long as highly qualified fiduciaries are available when needed, we support the lower commission.
To expand the availability of fiduciaries, this legislation also broadens the definition of a fiduciary to include state or local government agencies and nonprofit social service agencies. Expanding the statutory definition of a VA fiduciary will open up avenues for individuals who need fiduciaries but lack family members or other individuals who can serve in that capacity. Requiring VA to maintain a list of entities that can serve as fiduciaries will ensure that this option may be easily exercised.
This legislation also significantly strengthens the inquiry and investigation into and qualifications required for fiduciaries. Although the legislation removes the ability to waive aspects of the inquiry and investigation, we are pleased that the legislation allows for priority in conducting the required review for parents, spouses, and court appointed fiduciaries. We are hopeful that the requirement for an interview to be conducted within 30 days for all fiduciaries will ensure family members receive an especially prompt review. The legislation also adds to this list any person who is authorized to act on behalf of the beneficiary under a durable power of attorney. Adding individuals who hold viable durable powers of attorney to the expedited list of approval will hopefully ensure that VA will fully consider these individuals when appointing fiduciaries.
We continue to have concerns about whether efforts to tighten the review of potential fiduciaries will be unduly burdensome on family members seeking to serve as fiduciaries. Family members must be fully reviewed prior to appointment, but we hope VA will make every effort to exercise discretion where appropriate. This also extends to required annual accountings and the need to secure a bond.
It is also important to remember that VA’s authority to appoint a fiduciary only extends to VA benefits. This duty does not extend, for instance, to Social Security benefits unless that agency appoints that fiduciary as a representative payee for those benefits. Thus, we believe that a fiduciary’s annual accounting should be limited to VA benefits and not include other benefits or income that he or she might also oversee.
We appreciate the efforts of the subcommittee to address concerns in the VA’s fiduciary program. We pledge to continue serving as a resource to the committee and urge swift passage of legislation addressing VA’s fiduciary program.
To require the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to include an appeals form in any notice of decision issued for the denial of a benefit sought (H.R. 1405)
Veterans wishing to file a notice of disagreement with any aspect of a VA decision for benefits are not required to use a specific form. To simplify the process of appealing an initial denial of VA benefits, this legislation would require VA to include a form with each decision that may be used to file an appeal of the decision. We support this legislation but propose that the language be clarified to state that VA must provide “a form that may be used to file a notice of disagreement with the decision.” This clarification would eliminate any potential confusion with VA’s Form 9, Appeal to the Board of Veterans’ Appeals.
Thank you for the opportunity to testify concerning VetsFirst’s views on these important pieces of legislation. We remain committed to working in partnership to ensure that all veterans are able to reintegrate in to their communities and remain valued, contributing members of society.
Information Required by Clause 2(g) of Rule XI of the House of Representatives
Written testimony submitted by Heather L. Ansley, Vice President of Veterans Policy; VetsFirst, a program of United Spinal Association; 1660 L Street, NW, Suite 504; Washington, D.C. 20036. (202) 556-2076, ext. 7702.
This testimony is being submitted on behalf of VetsFirst, a program of United Spinal Association.
In fiscal year 2012, United Spinal Association served as a subcontractor to Easter Seals for an amount not to exceed $5000 through funding Easter Seals received from the U.S. Department of Transportation. This is the only federal contract or grant, other than the routine use of office space and associated resources in VA Regional Offices for Veterans Service Officers that United Spinal Association has received in the current or previous two fiscal years.
Heather L. Ansley, Esq., MSW
Heather L. Ansley is the Vice President of Veterans Policy for VetsFirst, which is a program of United Spinal Association. Ms. Ansley began her tenure with the organization in December 2009. She is responsible for developing and advocating for the public policy priorities of VetsFirst and promoting collaboration between disability organizations and veterans service organizations. She also serves as a co-chair of the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities Veterans Task Force.
Prior to her arrival at VetsFirst, she served as the Director of Policy and Advocacy for the Lutheran Services in America Disability Network.
Before arriving in Washington, D.C., she served as a Research Attorney for The Honorable Steve Leben with the Kansas Court of Appeals. Prior to attending law school, she worked in the office of former U.S. Representative Kenny Hulshof (R-MO) where she assisted constituents with problems involving federal agencies. She also served as the congressional and intergovernmental affairs specialist at the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Region VII office in Kansas City, Missouri.
Ms. Ansley is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Missouri-Columbia with a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science. Ms. Ansley also holds a Master of Social Work from the University of Missouri-Columbia and a Juris Doctorate from the Washburn University School of Law in Kansas.
She is licensed to practice law in the State of Kansas and before the United States District Court of Kansas.
Ms. Ansley lives in Falls Church, Virginia, with her husband, Jonathan.