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Witness Testimony of Heather Ansley, J.D., Vice President of Veterans Policy, VetsFirst

etsFirst is pleased to provide our support and recommendations for the following legislation.

Veteran’s I.D. Card Act (H.R. 2985)

We believe that this legislation will ensure that eligible veterans are able to fully benefit from services and promotional opportunities open to them by allowing them to prove their veteran status without having to present their DD-214s. Protections in the legislation ensure that there will be no confusion regarding the purpose of the card, which does not entitle the veteran to any benefits.

Veterans Data Breach Timely Notification Act (H.R. 3730)

We believe that the Veterans Data Breach Timely Notification Act provides important steps toward ensuring that veterans are properly informed of data breaches involving their sensitive personal information. This legislation not only requires the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to make a notification of a breach of this information but also requires VA to provide veterans with important information regarding the breach and how to take precautions to minimize the impact. Although we support this legislation, we believe that it is important to clarify the timeline for VA notification of a breach and to ensure accessibility of the notification for all disabled veterans.

Veterans Affairs Employee Accountability Act (H.R. 4481)

This legislation will ensure that employees who knowingly violate any civil law covered by the Federal Acquisition Regulation or the Veterans Affairs Acquisition Regulation do not receive bonuses for or during the year of the violation. It is our hope that using bonuses to reward only those employees who follow these laws will ensure that veterans receive the highest level of services from VA. Ultimately, VA must ensure that veterans’ needs can be clearly and efficiently met within the contracting requirements of federal law.

Veterans Fiduciary Reform Act of 2012 (H.R. 5948)

The Veterans Fiduciary Reform Act takes important steps toward ensuring that VA’s fiduciary program is more transparent and focused on the needs of veterans and other beneficiaries. We support efforts to clarify factors that will be considered to determine if a beneficiary needs a fiduciary and believe that efforts to strengthen the inquiry and investigation into and the qualifications for fiduciaries will ensure a higher level of service. It will be important, however, to ensure that VA exercises appropriate discretion to ensure that family member fiduciaries are not unduly burdened and that no fiduciaries exert authority over non-VA benefits except as properly authorized.

 

 

Chairman Johnson, Ranking Member Donnelly, and other distinguished members of the subcommittee, thank you for the opportunity to testify regarding VetsFirst’s views on the four bills under consideration today.

VetsFirst represents the culmination of 60 years of service to veterans and their families. United Spinal Association, through its veterans service program, VetsFirst, provides 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, United Spinal Association is not only a VA-recognized national veterans service organization, but is also a leader in advocacy for all people with disabilities.

Veteran’s I.D. Card Act (H.R. 2985)

Veterans who retire from the military by meeting the time-in-service requirement or who have a medical-related discharge receive cards from the Department of Defense identifying their status as veterans. VA provides identification cards for veterans who use VA medical care but not for those eligible for other types of benefits. For veterans who do not meet any of these requirements, a DD-214 is the only way to prove veteran status.

This legislation will ensure that eligible veterans are able to fully benefit from services and promotional opportunities open to them by allowing them to prove their veteran status without having to present their DD-214s. This is particularly important because DD-214s include sensitive personal information. To ensure that there is no confusion regarding the purpose of the identification card, we are pleased that it must specify that it does not serve as proof of entitlement to any benefits.

Thus, we urge swift passage of this legislation which will protect veterans’ information by allowing them to prove veteran status at times when presenting or carrying a DD-214 is not practical.

Veterans Data Breach Timely Notification Act (H.R. 3730)

VA has a legal and moral duty to secure the sensitive personal information of our nation’s veterans. The dangers of identity theft and the possible ramifications for a veteran’s credit must be carefully guarded against. Furthermore, the release of health information could not only be very damaging for a veteran’s professional career or personal life, but it also may cause veterans to avoid VA health care, including mental health care, because of concerns about confidentiality.

Veterans must believe they can trust VA with sensitive personal information. This means that they must be notified if their personal information is breached. We believe that the Veterans Data Breach Timely Notification Act takes important steps toward ensuring that veterans are

 

 

 

properly informed of data breaches. This legislation not only requires notification of a breach but also requires VA to inform veterans of a description of the sensitive personal information breached, to explain how to contact a VA employee to learn more about the breach, to alert the veteran of credit monitoring protections, and to provide resources for identify theft and how to contact the major credit reporting agencies.

Although we support this legislation, we believe that certain areas could be strengthened. Specifically, we believe that it is important to clarify the timeline for VA notification of a breach and to ensure accessibility of the notification for all disabled veterans.

Establishing a timeline for notification in the event of a data breach is critical to ensuring not only that veterans are able to act quickly if their data is compromised but also requires VA to be immediately transparent. We think that it would be helpful to clarify, however, that VA must notify individuals within five business days of learning about the breach. This clarification is important because it may be more than five business days before VA learns that a breach has occurred. Clear expectations will facilitate compliance.

We also believe that the method and content of notification to individual veterans should specify that the notices must be compliant with Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. This means that VA should be required to ensure that notification will include the opportunity to receive information in large print, Braille, audio, or electronic formats. For disabled veterans who have visual or other impairments, these options are particularly critical. Otherwise, these disabled veterans will not receive proper notice of the breach and will be unable to take proper action to address their concerns.

Veterans Affairs Employee Accountability Act (H.R. 4481)

Most VA employees are dedicated public servants who are devoted to serving the needs of our nation’s veterans. Bonuses play an important role in ensuring that VA is able to retain skilled employees who fill critical roles. However, they should be reserved for employees who truly excel at fulfilling their job functions. Otherwise, bonuses are viewed as an expectation instead of a reward for superior performance.

This legislation will ensure that employees who knowingly violate any civil law covered by the Federal Acquisition Regulation or the Veterans Affairs Acquisition Regulation do not receive bonuses for or during the year of the violation. It is our hope that using bonuses to reward only those employees who follow these laws will ensure that veterans receive the highest level of services from VA. Ultimately, VA must ensure that veterans’ needs can be clearly and efficiently met within the contracting requirements of federal law.

 

 

 

 

Veterans Fiduciary Reform Act of 2012 (H.R. 5948)

VA may appointment 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 this subcommittee 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 recently 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 or other beneficiaries 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. Furthermore, the program must provide an appropriate balance between protecting the needs of veterans and placing undue burden on family members who serve as fiduciaries.

The Veterans Fiduciary Reform Act takes important steps toward ensuring that VA’s fiduciary program is more transparent and focused on the needs of veterans. Specifically, this legislation ensures that the determination of whether or not an individual requires a fiduciary is based on factors such as a determination by a court of competent jurisdiction and an evaluation by a medical professional regarding the role of financial management in the rehabilitation of the individual. Importantly, it also states the types of evidence that must be considered in an appeal of such a determination, including court determinations, medical evidence, and lay evidence offered by the appellant. Also, an individual can file a claim to terminate any fiduciary relationship.

In addition to laying out the rights of veterans and other beneficiaries, this legislation also expands 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 removing the ability to waive aspects of the fiduciary review, we are pleased that the legislation allows for priority in conducting the inquiry or investigation for parents, spouses, and court appointed fiduciaries. 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. We hope that adding individuals who hold viable durable powers of attorney to the expedited list of approval will ensure that VA will fully consider these individuals when appointing fiduciaries. We also hope the requirement for VA to conduct the face-to-face interview within 30 days of the beginning of the inquiry or investigation will expedite the review process.

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. We are appreciative of the consideration of the ability of a proposed fiduciary to meet the financial requirements of acquiring a bond without sustaining hardship, which could be critically important to family members seeking to be fiduciaries.

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. Furthermore, the legislation does not appear to provide for predesignation of fiduciaries for other types of beneficiaries, including those seeking Dependency and Indemnity Compensation.

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.

It is important to remember that VA’s authority to appoint a fiduciary only extends to VA benefits. Thus, while we appreciate the exemption for family members from the requirement that a proposed fiduciary serve only as a fiduciary for benefits paid by VA, we believe that the need to address this issue would be met by simply clarifying the extent of a fiduciary’s duty. This duty does not extend,

 

 

for instance, to Social Security benefits unless that agency appoints that fiduciary as a representative payee for those benefits.

We appreciate the efforts of the subcommittee to address concerns in the VA’s fiduciary program. We also support the intent of this legislation, which is to ensure more accountability of fiduciaries to our nation’s veterans and other beneficiaries. We would welcome the opportunity to continue addressing the areas of recommendation that we have discussed today.

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.