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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 65 years of service to veterans and their families. We advocate for the programs, services, and disability rights that help all generations of veterans with disabilities remain independent. This includes access to VA financial and health care benefits, housing, transportation, and employment services and opportunities. Today, we are not only a VA-recognized national veterans service organization, but also a leader in advocacy for all people with disabilities.

Honor Those Who Served Act of 2013 (H.R. 2018)

A VA headstone or maker may be requested by a decedent’s next-of-kin, a decedent’s authorized representative, or a next-of-kin’s authorized representative. This legislation would allow organizations or individuals that do not meet these criteria to apply for headstones or markers for veterans whose headstones or markers have deteriorated or are unmarked. VetsFirst does not typically comment on specific memorial affairs issues. We support efforts, however, to ensure that all veterans receive the full honors due them, including access to proper headstones or makers.

To Direct the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to Carry Out a Pilot Program to Establish Claims Adjudication Centers of Excellence (H.R. 2088)

This legislation would establish a pilot program requiring VA to designate 12 claims adjudication centers of excellence. These centers of excellence would focus on adjudicating claims related to one medical condition selected by the VA Secretary. Conditions selected for the pilot will be those that are the most complex and time consuming commonly occurring conditions. Employees adjudicating claims within these centers of excellence would receive training specifically related to the types of medical conditions being adjudicated.

VetsFirst believes that efficiencies may be gained from allowing claims with complex medical conditions to be worked by specialized employees at centers of excellence. We believe, however, that this legislation should provide guidelines for assessing whether the pilot is successful, including interim reporting requirements identifying any problems in developing and implementing the pilot. In addition, we believe that VA should be required to evaluate whether the centers increase quality in the adjudication of the selected conditions and whether centers have an even distribution of work or whether some are overwhelmed, potentially creating new backlogs.

As VA moves toward full implementation of electronic claims processing, VA may seek greater efficiencies through the adjudication of claims by issue at different regional offices. In the event that claims are processed in different locations by issue, we believe that an individual at the regional office having jurisdiction over the veteran’s location should conduct a final review for benefits or related disabilities that may only be evident if the veteran’s claim is reviewed holistically.

Veterans Access to Speedy Review Act (H.R. 2119)

Appellants to the Board of Veterans’ Appeals have the opportunity to request a personal hearing on their claim and to select the location and means by which the hearing occurs. This legislation would require the Board to schedule appeals hearings in the location that would allow for the earliest possible hearing date. It would also require the Board to determine whether the appellant is required to appear in person or through the use of a videoconference. An appellant would have the opportunity to request a different location or type of hearing. This request may be granted by the Board.

VetsFirst supports efforts to expedite veterans’ claims appeal waiting times. However, we believe that if an appellant makes a request for a different location or type of hearing that this request should be granted. Ensuring that appellants have the opportunity to disagree with the location or type of hearing is a better way to ensure that hearings occur as quickly as possible while respecting appellants’ rights.

We would support legislation that ensures appellants’ requests for a different location or type of hearing must be granted.

Veteran Spouses Equal Treatment Act (H.R. 2529)

Nearly a year ago, the U.S. Supreme Court held that a provision of the Defense of Marriage Act defining the terms “marriage” and “spouse” as used in federal law as applying only to individuals who are of the opposite sex was unconstitutional. As a result of the Court’s decision, the President directed that VA no longer enforce prohibitions under Title 38 that would prohibit the receipt of benefits for otherwise eligible members of same-sex couples who have legally valid marriages. To facilitate access to all VA benefits available to legally recognized spouses, this legislation would amend Title 38 to define the term “spouse” based on whether the marriage of the individual was valid under an applicable state’s law.

We support this legislation which will ensure access to VA benefits for same-sex couples with legally recognized marriages.

To Expand Eligibility for a Medallion Furnished by the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to Signify Veteran Status of a Deceased Individual (H.R. 3671)

Medallions signifying veteran status of a deceased individual are available for veterans who died on or after November 1, 1990. This legislation would allow VA to provide a medallion upon request regardless of when the veteran died. Although VetsFirst does not typically comment on specific memorial affairs issues, we support efforts to ensure that veterans of all eras are able to receive benefits that acknowledge their military service.

Burial with Dignity for Heroes Act of 2014 (H.R. 3876)

To increase access to VA burial benefits for entities or individuals who provide for the burial of veterans with no next of kin or other person claiming the body, a provision of Public Law 112-260, which went into effect on January 10, 2014, provides greater access to VA burial benefits when a veteran’s estate is unable to cover burial and funeral costs. In recent years, however, the average cost of funerals has significantly outpaced the benefits available through VA. Burial benefits range from $2000 for service-connected deaths to as low as $300 for non-service-connected deaths. The average cost of a funeral in 2012 was $7,045.[1]

This legislation would provide grants for eligible entities to provide for the costs of burials for homeless veterans. VetsFirst does not have an official position on this legislation. However, we believe that any grants available should take into account any increased access to benefits that may be available under Public Law 112-260 and the burden of funeral and burial costs for all veterans due to the limited benefits available through VA.

Veterans’ Compensation Cost-of-Living Adjustment Act of 2014 (H.R. 4095)

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 would ensure that the disabled veterans and their survivors who receive these benefits are eligible for a COLA on December 1, 2014. Although the COLA received in 2013 was only 1.5 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.

To Clarify that the Estate of a Deceased Veteran may Receive Certain Accrued Benefits Upon the Death of the Veteran (H.R. 4102)

If a veteran who has no dependents is owed accrued benefits from VA but passes away before those benefits are released his or her estate is not able to receive those benefits. This legislation would ensure that benefits accrued to a deceased veteran will be payable to a veteran’s estate in the event that he or she has no surviving dependents. This provision will only apply in those circumstances in which the estate would not escheat.

The case of Mr. Shelton Hickerson, a Vietnam veteran, highlights the need for this legislation. Mr. Hickerson spent a number of years fighting his claim for VA disability compensation. Unfortunately, he died on the same day that VA awarded him $377,342. Because Mr. Hickerson had no dependents, the money owed him remains with VA. In addition to ensuring that the estates of other veterans would be eligible to receive accrued benefits, this legislation would also right the wrong suffered by Mr. Hickerson and his family.

We urge swift passage of this legislation to protect the accrued benefits of veterans like Mr. Hickerson.

To Authorize the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to Enter into Enhanced-Use Leases for Excess Property of the National Cemetery Administration that is Unsuitable for Burial Purposes (H.R. 4141)

VA’s Enhanced-Use Lease (EUL) program allows VA to benefit from the lease of its property for non-VA uses that are compatible with its mission. In 2012, VA’s EUL authority was amended to limit EULs to the provision of supportive housing. This legislation would allow VA to enter into EULs for excess property of the National Cemetery Administration (NCA) when that land is deemed unsuitable for burial purposes.

VetsFirst supports allowing EULs for excess NCA property when that property can be used to further VA’s mission.

Quicker Veterans Benefits Delivery Act (H.R. 4191)

The VA disability claims backlog is a well-documented problem that continues to persist despite advances by VA in adjudicating older claims. To streamline claims for benefits, VA has sought to standardize the receipt of medical information through the use of Disability Benefits Questionnaires (DBQs). DBQs allow a veteran’s physician to provide VA with the information that VA requires to adjudicate a veteran’s claim for benefits without requiring a VA medical examination.

Despite efforts to increase acceptance of private medical evidence, problems persist. This legislation would require VA to accept private medical evidence that is competent, credible, probative, and contains the information required to make a decision on a veteran’s claim. In addition, this legislation would require VA to provide a report to Congress regarding VA’s Acceptable Clinical Evidence initiative. Furthermore, VA would be required to provide an annual report with information about the number of times veterans who submitted private medical evidence are scheduled for exams because the evidence is determined to be unacceptable, the most common reasons why submitted evidence is deemed unacceptable, and the types of disabilities for which claims were most commonly denied when private medical evidence was submitted.

VetsFirst strongly supports efforts to streamline access to VA benefits by ensuring that proper private medical evidence is accepted in the determination of benefits. It is unnecessary to force veterans who submit medical evidence that is sufficient to adjudicate their claims to be subjected to further delays for redundant VA medical exams. We believe that this legislation will help to ensure that private medical evidence is accepted when appropriate.

We are also appreciative of reporting requirements in the legislation that will help to identify problem areas in the use of private medical evidence. Providing information about common reasons why evidence is not accepted will help to pinpoint changes needed to ensure that deficiencies in private medical evidence are remedied where possible. We also support the requirement to evaluate correlations between the rejection of private medical evidence and certain disabilities. We would suggest, however, that this language be amended to reflect a need to know when the evidence is rejected for claims by disability as opposed to by disability when claims that include private medical evidence are denied.

We support this legislation and urge its swift passage.

Thank you for the opportunity to testify concerning VetsFirst’s views on these important pieces of legislation. We appreciate your leadership on behalf of our nation’s veterans who are living with disabilities. I would be pleased to answer any questions.

 

Information Required by Clause 2(g) of Rule XI of the House of Representatives

Written testimony submitted by Heather L. Ansley, Vice President of VetsFirst; 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 VetsFirst, which is a program of United Spinal Association.

Ms. Ansley began her tenure with the organization in December 2009. Her responsibilities include managing the public policy advocacy, veterans benefits services, and veterans outreach activities for VetsFirst. She also works to promote collaboration between disability organizations and veterans service organizations by serving as a co-chair of the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities Veterans and Military Families 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.



[1] National Funeral Directors Association, Statistics, http://nfda.org/about-funeral-service-/trends-and-statistics.html.