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Witness Testimony of Mr. 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 a number of bills of great interest to veterans.  We will address today only those bills for which the Administration was able to coordinate its views in the time provided.  We will address the remaining bills in a subsequent letter to the Subcommittee. 

H.R. 674

H.R. 674 would repeal the current statutory requirement terminating the Advisory Committee on Minority Veterans (ACMV) as of December 31, 2009.  The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) supports H.R. 674.

The ACMV is composed of veterans of all ranks and services appointed by the Secretary of Veterans Affairs.  Members represent the five minority groups the Center for Minority Veterans is mandated to oversee.  It advises the Secretary and Congress on VA’s administration of benefits and provision of health care to minority veterans, assesses the needs of minority veterans, reviews VA programs and activities designed to meet those needs, and develops recommendations to address unmet needs.  Among other things, the ACMV meets with senior officials to discuss services and programs available for minority veterans and receives briefings from all of the Administrations and other staff offices.

The ACMV’s reports and recommendations have highlighted many of the challenges confronting minority veterans, such as access to care, disparities in health care for diseases that disproportionately affect minorities, homelessness, unemployment, lack of understanding of claims process, existence of limited medical research, and statistical data related to minority veterans.  VA has accepted many of the ACMV’s recommendations and is moving forward to implement them.  For example, VA is continually improving access to care by increasing the number of ambulatory care and outpatient clinics.  In 1995, there were 102 such clinics; currently, there are 872.  VA is also addressing homelessness by partnering with community stakeholders and expanding VA’s Grant and Per Diem Program.  In short, the ACMV plays a vital role in helping VA assess and respond to the needs of minority veterans, and its efforts complement VA’s related outreach efforts.

The cost associated with enactment of H.R. 674 would be insignificant, approximately $80,000 per year.

H.R. 2346

H.R. 2346 would direct the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to develop a process for determining whether a geographic area is sufficiently served by the national cemeteries located in that geographic area.  H.R. 2346 would require that the process take into account the:  (1) number of veterans living in the geographic area; (2) average distance a resident of the geographic area must travel to reach the nearest national cemetery; (3) population density of the geographic area; (4) average amount of time it takes a resident of the geographic area to travel to the nearest national cemetery; (5) availability of public transportation for purposes of traveling to national cemeteries located in the geographic area; and (6) average amount of any fees charged to an individual traveling on the major roads leading to the national cemeteries located in the geographic area.  If land sufficient to establish a national cemetery is not available to VA in a geographic area, VA would be required to consider alternatives to establishing a cemetery, including establishing a mausoleum.

VA currently seeks to ensure that a national cemetery is located within a 75-mile radius of a deceased veteran's residence.  One of the criteria for selecting the site of a new national cemetery is a veteran population of 170,000 that is not served by a national cemetery or state veterans’ cemetery.  The six new national cemeteries authorized by the National Cemetery Expansion Act of 2003, as well as the six cemeteries authorized by the Veterans Millennium Health Care and Benefits Act, which was enacted in 1999, satisfy these criteria.  VA is currently evaluating VA's memorial benefits program.  We expect to complete this program evaluation by April 2008.  We believe it would be prudent to consider the results of this program evaluation before developing the new process H.R. 2346 would require.  Therefore, we oppose H.R. 2346 because the measures outlined in the bill are premature at this time.

Because we cannot know the full extent of the process that H.R. 2346 would mandate until the process is developed, we are unable to estimate the costs that would result from enactment of the bill.

H.R. 2696

Section 2(a) of H.R. 2696, the "Veterans' Dignified Burial Assistance Act of 2007," would increase from $300 to $400 the amount of reimbursement allowed for the costs of a burial plot or interment for a veteran who is eligible for burial in a VA national cemetery but is buried in a state or private cemetery.  This plot or interment allowance was last increased from $150 to $300 by Public Law 107-103 in 2001.  Section 2(b) of the bill would nullify the two-year time limitation in 38 C.F.R. § 3.1604(d)(2) for states to file claims for the plot or interment allowance as it applied to claims in connection with interment of a deceased veteran’s unclaimed remains.  Section 2(b) would be retroactively effective as of October 1, 2006.

As explained above, VA is currently evaluating its memorial benefits program.  That evaluation will assess the appropriateness of VA’s current burial benefits based on the data obtained and beneficiary needs.  We believe that it would be premature to take a position on section 2 of the bill before we have completed our memorial benefits program evaluation.  Accordingly, we defer taking a position on these provisions until we have had an opportunity to review the results of this program evaluation.

Enactment of section 2(a) would result in costs of $7.2 million for the first year and $77 million over ten years.  Enactment of section 2(b) would result in insignificant costs.

Section 2(c) of the bill would authorize VA to provide up to $5 million annually in grants to states or tribal organizations for operating and maintaining state veterans’ cemeteries or veterans' cemeteries on trust land owned by, or held in trust for, tribal organizations.  It would also require VA, not later than 180 days after enactment, to prescribe regulations to carry out the amendments.  VA does not support using the State Cemetery Grant Program to operate and maintain state veterans’ cemeteries or tribal organization cemeteries.  (For convenience, we refer below only to grants to states and state veterans’ cemeteries, but our rationale applies also to grants to tribal organizations and their veterans’ cemeteries.)

The State Cemetery Grant Program is intended to complement the national cemetery system in providing a dignified burial place reasonably close to where veterans live.  Through the grant program, states establish, expand, or improve cemeteries in areas where there are no plans to create an open national cemetery.  Under current law, VA may fund 100 percent of certain costs related to the establishment, expansion, or improvement of a state veterans’ cemetery.

Historically, states have been solely responsible for all operational and maintenance activities at state veterans’ cemeteries.  Federal grants to operate and maintain state veterans’ cemeteries may create ambiguities in the states’ responsibility for the operation and maintenance of state cemeteries.  Also, because operating costs are recurring, it is unclear upon what basis the grants would be awarded or how the grants would be distributed.  Funds obligated for this new purpose could otherwise be used for state cemetery grants in the existing program or to help fund operation and maintenance costs for VA national cemeteries.  Authorizing Federal grants to fund operation and maintenance could discourage states that have already received grants from fulfilling their commitments to operate and maintain their cemeteries, or could encourage future grant applicants to inadequately plan for funding the operation and maintenance of their cemeteries because of the availability of Federal grants to cover those costs.

Enactment of section 2(c) of this bill would result in costs of $5 million for the first year and $50 million over ten years.

H.R. 2697

Veterans' Mortgage Life Insurance (VMLI) is available to severely disabled veterans who receive a specially adapted housing grant.  Congress recently extended eligibility for specially adapted housing assistance to members of the Armed Forces serving on active duty who have certain service-connected disabilities.  H.R. 2697 would extend the protection offered by VMLI to members of the Armed Forces receiving specially adapted housing assistance from VA.  VA supports this bill.

VA estimates that 30 servicemembers would be eligible for VMLI if H.R. 2697 were enacted.  If all 30 servicemembers applied for VMLI, VA estimates that enactment of H.R. 2697 would result in total additional benefit costs of approximately $28,000 for the first year and $1.7 million over ten years.  Additional administrative costs would be minimal.