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Witness Testimony of Mr. Curtis L. Coy, Deputy Under Secretary for Economic Opportunity, Veterans Benefits Administration U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee, I am pleased to provide the views of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) on pending legislation concerned with Veterans education, employment, and small business contracting issues.  Joining me today are C. Ford Heard, Associate Deputy Assistant Secretary for Procurement Policy, Systems and Oversight, Office of Acquisitions, Logistics and Construction, and Keith Wilson, Director, Education Service, Veterans Benefits Administration.
VA is providing our insight on several bills on the agenda.  Other bills under discussion today affect programs or laws administered by the Department of Labor (DOL), Department of Education (ED) and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).  Respectfully, we defer to those agencies’ views with respect to the following bills:  H.R. 3524 (rights for persons receiving treatment for illnesses, injuries, and disabilities affected by service in the uniformed services – DOL), H.R. 3610 (consolidation and streamlining Federal workforce – DOL and ED), H.R. 3670 (requiring the TSA to comply with the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act – DHS), and H.R. 4051 (providing for off-base transition training – DOL).  VA regrets we did not have sufficient time to formulate costs for four measures, H.R. 3483, H.R. 4048, H.R. 4052 and H.R. 4072.  I want to begin by stating that every initiative has the admirable goal of assisting our Nation’s Veterans and Servicemembers.

H.R. 3329
    H.R. 3329 would amend section 3103, title 38, United States Code, to extend the period during which a Veteran may be afforded a rehabilitation program under chapter 31 of that title.  Chapter 31 entitles a person with a service-connected disability and an employment handicap to participate in a rehabilitation program depending on the degree of disability and severity of employment handicap.  Under current law, a Veteran generally may be afforded such a program for up to 12 years, beginning on the date of the Veteran’s discharge or service-connected disability notification.  H.R. 3329 would extend that period of eligibility to 15 years.
    VA supports extending the period of eligibility for vocational rehabilitation services, provided that Congress finds funding offsets.  Individuals may need vocational rehabilitation services during mid-life when disabilities worsen or when changing careers, or later in life when in need of independent living services.  By extending the period of eligibility, VA’s Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment (VR&E) program will be able to provide individuals who meet the eligibility and entitlement criteria for services under chapter 31 with the assistance they need.

VA estimates that enactment of H.R. 3329 would result in benefit costs to VA of $4.4 million for the first year, $25 million for five years, and $57.9 million over ten years.  There are no significant administrative costs associated with this bill because the caseload increase would be minimal.

H.R. 3483
H. R. 3483, the “Veterans Education Equity Act of 2011,” would revise the formula for the payment by VA of tuition and fees for individuals entitled to educational assistance under the Post-9/11 GI Bill and pursuing programs of education at public institutions of higher learning (IHLs).
Currently, resident and non-resident students pursuing a program of education at public IHLs receive the actual net cost for in-state tuition and fees charged by the institution.  This bill would allow non-resident students to receive an amount above the net in-state charges in some instances.  H.R. 3483 would amend section 3313 (c)(1) of title 38, United States Code, to require VA to pay individuals pursuing a program of education at public IHLs, the lesser of 1) the actual net cost for tuition and fees assessed by the institution for the program of education, or 2) the greater of either the actual net cost for in-state tuition and fees, or  $17,500 (for the academic year beginning on August 1, 2011, with such amount to be increased each subsequent year by the average percentage increase in undergraduate tuition costs).
VA would be required to implement these changes to the payment of educational assistance for the academic year beginning on or after the date of enactment.
    While VA supports the intent to provide payment equity to individuals training under the Post-9/11 GI Bill, VA cannot support this legislation as written.   
Separate rules for tuition-and-fee charges would add another level of complexity to the program for both beneficiaries and schools.  We continue to receive complaints from beneficiaries with regard to understanding exactly how much they will receive in tuition and fees under the Post-9/11 GI Bill program.  This bill would exacerbate that problem.
Furthermore, VA continues to work aggressively on the Long-Term Solution (LTS) to further enhance processing of Post-9/11 GI Bill claims.  As of June 2011, VA and the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center Atlanta (SPAWAR) have developed five major releases for the LTS system.  VA’s plans to achieve full automation of a subset of Post-9/11 GI Bill claims is expected with release 6.0 in July 2012.  This enhanced functionality, originally planned for June 2011, was delayed to accommodate changes to the Post-9/11 GI Bill required by P.L. 111-377, the Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Improvements Act of 2010.  
The enactment of this legislation would severely hamper VA’s deployment efforts and delay automation of claims.  The changes made by this legislation would lead to very complicated processing scenarios in the LTS.  Some of the major rules in the LTS system regarding payment amounts would need to be updated; as a result, and would cost additional money for system testers.  Additionally, since the amount of educational assistance would be based on the actual net cost for tuition and fees versus the greater of the actual net cost for in-state tuition and fees and $17,500, VA would have to apply a blended set of rules to each claim that falls under these provisions.  
    As written, the effective date for the proposed legislation would be the date of enactment.  However, VA estimates that we would need one year from date of enactment to make the system changes necessary to implement the proposed legislation.  VA would be happy to work with the Subcommittee to provide technical assistance.
In addition, although we regret we were unable to estimate the costs of this proposal in time for this hearing, VA notes that any change in benefit levels that would increase the total cost of the program would necessitate the identification of offsets.  VA will provide a cost estimate at a later time.  

H.R. 4048
Section 8127 of title 38, United States Code, requires VA to establish annual acquisition dollar goals for VA contracts with small businesses owned and controlled by Veterans and service-disabled Veterans.  In addition, section 8127 provides acquisition set-aside authority for such businesses and establishes priority for them over all other small business preferences in VA acquisitions.
H.R. 4048, the “Improving Contracting Opportunities for Veteran-Owned Small Businesses Act of 2012,” would amend section 8127 by adding new subsection (k) providing that "[f]or purposes of meeting the goals under subsection (a), the Secretary shall include the acquisition of goods and services through the use of a Federal Supply Schedule of the General Services Administration.’’
VA is continuing to analyze this legislation, and will provide its views in writing once we complete that analysis.  

H. R. 4051
    H. R. 4051, the “TAP Modernization Act of 2012,” would direct the DOL to provide the Transition Assistance Program (TAP) during a three-year period to Veterans and their spouses at locations other than military installations in three to five states selected by DOL.  DOL would select states that have the highest rates of Veteran unemployment and would provide a sufficient number of training locations to facilitate access by participants to meet the need in each state.  DOL also would include in any TAP contract a requirement for experts in subject matters relating to human resources practices, including resume writing, interviewing and job searching skills, and the provision of information about post-secondary education.
Reports to Congress would be required in each year of the training, and after the termination of the three-year period of TAP training required by this Act, the Comptroller General of the United States would submit to Congress a report on the training, to include the feasibility of carrying out off-base transition training at locations nationwide.
VA defers to the DOL on the merits of the bill, however, VA is required to participate in TAP briefings.  Therefore, we note the following impact on VA.  Assuming the effective date of this legislation would be October 1, 2012, VA’s estimated administrative expenses would be $1.3 million the first year and $4.5 million over three years.

H.R. 4052
H.R. 4052, the “Recognizing Excellence in Veterans Education Act of 2012,” would add a new section 3698 to title 38, United States Code, directing VA to establish an honorary “Excellence in Veterans Education Award” to recognize IHLs that provide superior services to Veterans.  The award would be valid for three years (however, it may be withdrawn at any time VA deems appropriate) and the IHL that received it would be noted on the list of institutions approved for Veteran education benefits, which is maintained on VA’s Internet Web site.  VA would grant the Award to IHLs only if:  (1) the head of the IHL has a student Veteran advisory board or a student Veteran advisor from whom the head seeks advice; (2) the IHL participates in the Yellow Ribbon G.I. Bill Education Enhancement Program (Yellow Ribbon Program) under the Post-9/11 GI Bill, contributes the maximum amount under the program, and ensures that all such amounts are made available to all Veterans enrolled at the IHLs who qualify for the Yellow Ribbon program; (3) the IHL has a Veterans support program that provides services VA considers appropriate; (4) the IHL is a member of the Servicemembers Opportunity College; (5) the average graduation rate for all of the IHL enrolled students is at least as great as the average national graduation rate for all students enrolled in the same type of institution, as determined by VA; and (6) any other criteria VA considers appropriate.      
VA has concerns with some of the provisions in the bill as written.  
Implementing a program that awards IHLs for their service to Veterans will give them incentive to provide better service.  By listing exceptional institutions on VA’s GI Bill web site, Veterans would have more knowledge regarding the best institutions available for them to attend.  We are concerned, however, about the criterion regarding measurement of the graduation rates.  The legislation would not require IHLs to measure the Veteran-graduation rates, and VA does not currently track them.  VA recommends that language be included to require IHLs to track and report such rates.  
With regard to the criteria pertaining to the IHL participation in the Yellow Ribbon Program, it appears that a school would be required to provide Yellow Ribbon benefits to every Veteran attending more than ½ time in order to qualify for the Award.  We note that currently there are few schools that provide Yellow Ribbon benefits to every eligible Post-9/11 GI Bill Veteran.  Also, because Veterans’ in-state costs are fully covered at most public schools, many public institutions do not participate in the Yellow Ribbon Program.  Therefore, it appears these schools would be excluded from the excellence award although they may provide other forms of superior service to Veterans.  Similarly, many institutions that are not IHLs would be excluded from this recognition.  
This legislation requires that VA determine if the IHL has a student Veteran advisory board and a Veterans support program that provides services VA considers appropriate.  Since this information is not currently collected, tracking the availability of such information would be a significant administrative undertaking for VA and schools.  VA would need additional resources to implement the legislation.    
VA will provide a cost estimate at a later time.  
H.R. 4057
H.R. 4057, the “Improving Transparency of Education Opportunities for Veterans Act of 2012,” would add a new section to chapter 36 of title 38, United States Code, directing VA to develop a comprehensive policy to improve outreach and transparency to Veterans and members of the Armed Forces through the provision of information on IHLs.  Specifically, the policy would include the following elements: (1) the most effective way to inform individuals of the educational and vocational counseling provided by VA, (2) a centralized way to track and publish feedback from students and State Approving Agencies (SAAs) regarding the quality of instruction and accreditation, recruiting practices, and post-graduation employment placement of the IHLs, (3) the value of and manner in which a SAA shares information regarding that agency’s evaluation of an IHL with an accrediting agency recognized by the ED, (4) the manner in which information regarding IHLs is provided to individuals participating in the Transition Assistance Program, and (5) the most effective way to provide Veterans and Servicemembers with information regarding available VA postsecondary education and training opportunities.
In order for VA to develop the aforementioned comprehensive policy, H.R. 4057 would direct the Department to conduct a market survey to determine the availability of a commercial, off-the-shelf, online tool that would allow a Veteran or Servicemember to assess whether that individual is academically ready to attend postsecondary education and training opportunities, or would need any remedial preparation before beginning such opportunities.  The survey would also determine whether a similar tool would be available to provide Veterans and Servicemembers with a list of providers of postsecondary education and training opportunities based on criteria selected by those individuals.
This measure also would direct VA, not later than 90 days after the date of enactment, to submit to the House and Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committees a report describing the comprehensive policy to improve outreach and transparency required by this bill, VA’s plan to implement such policy, and the results of the market survey, as well as whether VA plans to implement the tools described in the survey, if available.
VA supports providing Veterans with better information about their educational opportunities, but does not believe legislation is necessary because of policies and programs already in place at VA, ED, and the Department of Defense (DoD).  VA has outreach programs within its Education Service, VR&E Service, and Benefits Assistance Service (BAS).  These are proven outreach mechanisms that can easily emphasize this information.  
If the intent for this bill is to increase outreach efforts in a more targeted nationwide method, VA believes existing mechanisms would satisfy that intent.  For example, ED currently provides information about the quality and accreditation of IHLs participating in the federal student financial aid programs.  The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) is the primary federal entity for collecting and analyzing data related to education.  Section 1094 of title 20, United States Code, requires institutions to complete surveys conducted as a part of the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS).  VA believes that ED is best-positioned to explain the informational resources available that fulfill the intent of the legislation.  VA continues to work and coordinate with ED and can enhance the level of information sharing between agencies in order to simplify the information for Veterans and members of the Armed Forces to interpret and use.  
VA’s improvement measures for the Transition Assistance Program (TAP) are in line with the proposed legislation.  TAP is currently being revised and enhanced as an initiative for both VA and DoD.  
VR&E Service currently has commercial, off-the-shelf tools available to evaluate and assist Veterans and Servicemembers in determining academic readiness.  
In previous years, VA conducted customer satisfaction surveys with beneficiaries to determine if they are satisfied with the overall customer experience and determine which areas of service need improvement.  To acquire the information for this legislation, a similar survey could be completed with students and SAAs about the quality of the instruction and accreditation, recruiting practices and post-graduation employment placement provided by the IHLs.
VA has concerns with providing a report within 90 days of enactment, as would be required by H.R. 4057.  Until VA has an opportunity to discuss the reporting requirements with ED, VA is unable to clearly identify what resources would be needed to meet the 90-day reporting requirement.
It seems to us that each Department (VA, ED, DOL, DoD) would need to agree to share data through a central repository, make collection and presentation of such data consistent with student privacy laws, and develop a method to track and collect post-graduate employment information.  Discussions must first take place between agencies to determine what systems can be integrated or if systems need to be developed to capture feedback from students and SAAs.
Information sharing between agencies and a centralized tracking and feedback system regarding quality of instruction, accreditation, recruiting practices, and post-graduate employment will require extensive coordination between several Federal Agencies.  A system meeting the criteria of this legislation does not currently exist to our knowledge.  
Assuming enactment on October 1, 2012, VA estimates the administrative costs associated with H.R. 4057 would be $2.3 million in FY 2013, $4.3 million over five years, and $7.5 million over ten years.  Information technology costs cannot be provided since it is unclear if systems could be integrated or if systems need to be developed to capture feedback from students and SAAs.
H.R. 4072
H.R. 4072, the “Consolidating Veteran Employment Services for Improved Performance Act of 2012,” would transfer a number of functions performed under programs relating to Veterans employment and all personnel, assets, and liabilities pertaining to such programs from the DOL to VA.  Specifically, these programs from chapters in title 38, United States Code, would include: (1) job counseling, training, and placement services for Veterans under chapter 41; (2) employment and training of Veterans under chapter 42; (3) administration of employment and employment rights of members of the uniformed services under chapter 43; and (4) homeless Veterans reintegration programs under chapter 20.
VA and DOL share a strong interest in providing Veterans with the information, education, and skills to transition successfully to civilian careers.  VA is ready to discuss these organizational issues with the Subcommittee and our DOL partners at any time.
    Mr. Chairman, this concludes my statement.  I would be happy to answer any questions you or the other Members of the Subcommittee may have.  Thank you.