Witness Testimony of Mr. Ryan M. Gallucci, Deputy Director, National Legislative Service, Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States
Chairman Flores, Ranking Member Takano and members of the Subcommittee, on behalf of the men and women of the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States (VFW) and our Auxiliaries, I want to thank you for the opportunity to present the VFW’s stance on legislation pending before this Subcommittee.
H.R. 331, a bill to direct the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to permit the centralized reporting of veteran enrollment by certain groups, districts, and consortiums of educational institutions:
The VFW supports Representative Ken Calvert’s bill, which will allow educational institutions to report enrollments to VA as groups, districts or consortiums. This responsible piece of legislation will bring consistency across the different chapters of GI Bill benefits, making it easier for VA to determine beneficiary status and track student-veterans as they seek to accomplish their academic goals.
H.R. 821, a bill to amend the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act to provide surviving spouses with certain protections relating to mortgages and mortgage foreclosures, and for other purposes:
The VFW supports Representative Alan Grayson’s bill to extend Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA) protections for surviving spouses. The VFW believes it is unreasonable to hold survivors immediately accountable for rectifying difficult financial situations during times of extreme vulnerability resulting from the loss of a loved one in the line of duty. The VFW believes that this bill offers reasonable protections to allow survivors to manage their affairs before facing repercussions or the loss of a home. We hope the committee moves quickly on approving these reasonable protections.
H.R. 1357, a bill to amend the VOW to Hire Heroes Act of 2011 to improve the Veterans Retraining Assistance Program by providing assistance under such program for certain training programs that are considered less than full-time:
The VFW has heard from many veterans that the Veterans Retraining Assistance Program (VRAP) has helped them secure the skills necessary to succeed in a competitive job market. Unfortunately, the latest statistics from Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) on VRAP utilization still demonstrate that the benefit is drastically underutilized, even by veterans who are approved to participate in the program. The VFW believes that this unique benefit, which is designed to serve the largest population of unemployed veterans, has the potential to change the lives of many more veterans if we slightly modify some of the stringent program requirements, allowing veterans the flexibility to complete approved programs.
The VFW raised concerns before this subcommittee in April that the requirement for all participants in the Veterans Retraining Assistance Program (VRAP) to attend as full time students prevented some from receiving necessary remediation to finish their programs. Furthermore, many veterans who qualify for VRAP may also need to balance other life obligations in order to pay their bills and complete their approved academic program. With these two issues in mind, the VFW is proud to support Representative Bill Johnson’s bill, which would allow certain VRAP participants to utilize their benefits for programs less than full time.
H.R. 1796, Troop Talent Act of 2013:
The VFW has been a vocal advocate to improve the transferability of military training and experience for veterans seeking civilian professional licenses and credentials. While the Department of Defense, private industry and state governments have made significant efforts in the last few years to improve the translation of military skills for these purposes, the VFW believes that we can do more, which is why we are proud to support Representative Tammy Duckworth’s bill.
In a recent town hall meeting with veterans’ advocates, Representative Duckworth discussed how her personal military experiences as an officer afforded her countless professional development opportunities while on active duty. Unfortunately, her enlisted counterparts were not afforded similar opportunities to acquire skills that would prove useful in post military life.
Through the “Troop Talent Act,” more military personnel will have access to civilian credentialing opportunities while on active duty. It allows service members to use educational assistance benefits to pursue civilian licenses and credentials, and expands the military’s pilot program on civilian credentialing to include Information Technology. It also requires the Secretaries of each military department to make specific information on military training available to civilian credentialing bodies and reconstitutes VA’s advisory committee on professional licensure and certification to ensure that licenses and credentials eligible for programmatic participation remain relevant to civilian careers.
The VFW believes that unemployment in the veterans’ community cannot be solved through post-military intervention alone, and that the military must better prepare its trained professionals to succeed after service. This bill helps to facilitate a service member’s transition into a quality career after the military, and we encourage the committee to quickly pass it.
H.R. 1842, Military Family Home Protection Act:
Over the last few years, the VFW has heard horror stories about companies foreclosing on military home owners while either their loved ones are overseas or recovering from life-altering injuries. While the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA) offers some protections to vulnerable military families, the VFW believes that some financial institutions skirt the laws or even hold military status against certain families when extending credit or other financial services. The VFW believes that these practices must stop and we are proud to support Representative Elijah Cumming’s bill to make this possible.
This bill seeks to end predatory foreclosures on military families by extending SCRA protections for military families whose loved ones are not only deployed, but also permanent and total disabled, or who lost their lives in the line of duty regardless of when the mortgage was commissioned. This bill also strengthens criminal penalties against institutions that knowingly violate SCRA, and creates penalties for withholding or denying certain financial services for military families who claim SCRA protection.
Never again should a military family worry that the bank will seize their home while their loved one is serving overseas or after their loved one has made the ultimate sacrifice. Military home owners face unique circumstances, and deserve these kinds of reasonable accommodations. A similar version of this bill almost passed last year as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). We hope this committee will once again move this legislation quickly, affording reasonable financial protections to our military families at times of extreme vulnerability.
H.R. 2150, Homeless Veterans’ Reintegration Programs Reauthorization Act of 2013:
The VFW believes that the essential job training, placement and counseling services provided to homeless veterans through the Homeless Veterans’ Reintegration Program (HVRP) remain critical to helping many veterans re-enter the labor force, ending the cycle of homelessness. The most recent figures offered by the Department of Labor Veterans Employment and Training Service (VETS) on the success of HVRP demonstrate that veterans who participate in the program have a job placement rate of more than 65 percent. To the VFW, this demonstrates quality program success for our veterans who need the most help.
The authorization for HVRP appropriations is set to expire at the end of 2013, which is why the VFW is happy to support Representative Paul Cook’s legislation to reauthorize the program through 2018. The VFW believes that the intensive services offered by VETS through HVRP are critical to helping our veterans find meaningful work and ending the cycle of homelessness. We urge Congress to quickly pass H.R. 2150.
H.R. 2210, Marine Gunnery Sergeant John David Fry Scholarship Improvement Act of 2013:
The VFW believes that Fry Scholarship program is a critical benefit that honors the sacrifices of our fallen heroes by ensuring the ones they leave behind have the tools necessary to succeed after their tragic loss through the Post-9/11 GI Bill. As written, the program only offers surviving children access to Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits if their parent dies specifically in the line of duty. Unfortunately, this leaves out survivors of those who die shortly after their military service as a result of a battlefield injury. The VFW believes that these survivors must also have access to the Fry Scholarship program, which is why we proudly support Representative Bill Young’s legislation.
H.R. 2011, Veterans Advisory Committee on Education Improvement Act of 2013:
The VFW supports Representative John Delaney’s bill calling for the reauthorization of the VA Secretary’s Advisory Committee on Education. The VFW believes that this committee is critical to identifying the challenges facing student-veterans and presenting responsible solutions to the Secretary directly from industry stakeholders. The VFW is disappointed that the committee has failed to meet over the last few years, at a critical time when nearly one million veterans are accessing their GI Bill benefits. Since the advisory committee is set to expire at the end of 2013, the VFW believes that Congress must extend the advisory committee at least through 2015. The military expects to transition at least 200,000 veterans each year for the next two years, many of whom will seek to use their lucrative GI Bill benefits. Now more than ever, this advisory committee is critical to ensuring potential student-veterans have the support they need to succeed in college life. Furthermore, the VFW believes that VA must revisit the committee’s membership to ensure that members remain relevant in the veterans’ education sphere, to ensure that academics, state agencies, and veterans have a voice in the discussion.
H.R. 2327, Veterans Economic Opportunity Administration Act of 2013:
The VFW supports the concept of this bill, which would elevate the responsibility for veteran economic success in VA to the level of a presidentially-appointed VA Under Secretary for Economic Opportunity. Given the scope of responsibility for the current Under Secretary for Veterans Benefits, the VFW believes that many VA economic opportunity programs do not receive the level of attention they demand – particularly during a time of significant transition for our military when hundreds of thousands of new veterans are likely to enter the VA system.
However, the VFW also has concerns about the proposal to elevate responsibility for VA economic programs. First, the VFW is concerned about interoperability between a new administration and the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA). Certain economic opportunity benefits like Vocational Rehabilitation & Education (VR&E) rely on ratings decisions from VBA for eligibility. The VFW already sees difficulty in collaboration between VBA and the Veterans Health Administration (VHA), and we would want assurances that a new administration would not face similar bureaucratic hurdles.
The VFW is also concerned about how a new administration would affect the roll-out and adoption of eBenefits among all new VA enrollees. Currently, all economic opportunity benefits are coordinated through the eBenefits portal, and we would hope that a new administration would not be charged with creating a separate gateway for economic opportunity programs, similar to the separate systems for VBA (eBenefits) and VHA (MyHealtheVet).
Finally, the VFW has some concern about how the confirmation process would affect the ability of the administration to carry out its programs. As we saw recently with the disability claims backlog, years passed before the Senate could confirm an Under Secretary for VBA, making it difficult to hold VA leaders accountable for programmatic goals and potential shortcomings.
The VFW agrees that we must elevate the discussion on veterans’ economic opportunity. We generally support Chairman Jeff Miller’s efforts to accomplish this and would be proud to support with assurances that the new administration would decisively improve the delivery of economic opportunity resources to our veterans.
A Draft Bill to amend title 38, United States Code, to codify and improve the election requirements for the receipt of educational assistance under the Post 9/11 Educational Assistance program of the Department of Veterans Affairs:
The VFW supports Chairman Bill Flores and his efforts to streamline how VA can approve initial claims for Post-9/11 GI Bill (Chapter 33) beneficiaries. While the Veterans Benefits Administration has been able to resolve its issues with supplemental Chapter 33 claims, allowing enrolled students to receive timely compensation, claims processors remain concerned that the time to approve initial claims remains too long, thanks to archaic business practices. Currently, claims processors must go through a time-intensive back-and-forth with potential student-veterans who accidentally revoke the wrong GI Bill benefit before they can properly enroll them in Chapter 33. This bill would allow VA to make a reasonable effort to contact the veteran to enroll them in the most lucrative benefit.
The VFW does have concerns that as written, this bill could create unintended circumstances where a veteran may accidentally revoke the wrong benefit or enroll in a program that will not be the most beneficial, but we look forward to working with Chairman Flores to ensure that the language will not have any unintended consequences.
The bill also adjusts how VA reimburses veterans eligible for the Montgomery GI Bill (Chapter 30) and who have paid into the benefit, but elect to use Chapter 33 instead. Currently, Chapter 30-eligible veterans who elect to use Chapter 33 must wait until they have finished using their benefits before VA can repay them for their Chapter 30 contribution. Under this law, the Chapter 30 contribution would be prorated and added into living stipend payments while the veteran is enrolled in Chapter 33, meaning more money to help veterans make ends meet while they are on a fixed income as college students.
Chairman Flores, Ranking Member Takano, this concludes my statement and I am happy to answer any questions you may have.