Witness Testimony of Mr. Thomas Murphy, Director of Compensation and Pension Service, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs
Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee, thank you for the opportunity to present the views of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) on several bills of interest to Veterans and VA. Accompanying me today is Richard Hipolit, Assistant General Counsel. VA does not yet have cleared views on H.R. 2720 or H.R. 5881, the “Access to Veterans Benefits Improvement Act.” VA will forward views and estimated costs on these bills as soon as they are available.
Section 2411 of title 38, United States Code, prohibits the interment of the remains of certain persons in a cemetery in the National Cemetery Administration or Arlington National Cemetery. Section 2411 also prohibits honoring of the memory of those persons in a memorial area in those cemeteries. These prohibitions apply to persons who have been finally convicted of a Federal capital crime, persons who have been finally convicted of a state capital crime, and persons who have been found, in administrative proceedings, to have committed a Federal or state capital crime but not to have been convicted by reason of unavailability for trial due to death or flight to avoid prosecution.
Section 2(a) of H.R. 2355, the “Hallowed Grounds Act,” would add to section 2411 another category of persons subject to those prohibitions. Under this amendment, a person “who is a tier III sex offender for purposes of the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act” could not be interred or honored in a national cemetery. Tier III is the most serious category of sex offenders in the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act. Although the caption of section 2(a) refers to a bar to receiving certain funeral honors, section 2411 does not pertain to the provision of funeral honors as such, as that term is used to refer to ceremonial activities that accompany the interment of remains. Under section 2(b) of the bill, these provisions would apply to interments and memorializations that occur on or after the date of enactment. VA defers to the Department of the Army on the applicability of the proposed amendment to burial in Arlington National Cemetery, which is operated by that Department, and defers to the Department of Defense as to any effect on the provision of funeral honors, which the Department of Defense provides to eligible Veterans.
VA supports the goal of keeping the most heinous sex offenders from receiving the honor of interment or memorialization in VA cemeteries. VA has concerns about some practical issues that implementation of H.R. 2355, as currently drafted, would raise. VA would like to confer with the Committee, the Department of Justice (DOJ), and with VA’s Veterans Service Organization partners following the hearing regarding the sensitive issues that it raises. VA would like to further investigate specific concerns with DOJ about the accuracy and reliability of information currently contained in State databases and whether those databases contain the information VA needs to make eligibility determinations and ensure consistent application for similar offenses across the Nation. In addition to the current accuracy of the databases, VA is also concerned by the fact that when sex offenders die, States are not required to maintain their records. This could give rise to circumstances that could necessitate labor-intensive searches and review in the implementation of the prohibitions and could reduce VA’s ability to provide timely decisions on burial requests. VA will work closely with the Committee, DOJ, and other partners to attempt to resolve these questions.
Section 1117 of title 38, United States Code, authorizes VA to pay compensation to Persian Gulf Veterans with a qualifying chronic disability that became manifest during service on active duty in the Armed Forces in the Southwest Asia theater of operations during the Persian Gulf War or during a presumptive period prescribed by VA, as authorized by section 1117(b). Under current regulations, that presumptive period will end December 31, 2016. Section 2(a) of H.R. 2996, the “Gulf War Syndrome ‘Presumptive Illness’ Extension Act of 2011,” would prohibit the presumptive period prescribed by VA from ending earlier than December 31, 2018. Section 1117(f) defines the term “Persian Gulf veteran” for purposes of section 1117 as “a veteran who served on active duty in the Armed Forces in the Southwest Asia theater of operations during the Persian Gulf War.” Section 2(b)(1) of the bill would require VA to treat as a Persian Gulf Veteran eligible for compensation authorized by section 1117 any “veteran who served on active duty in the Armed Forces during Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Iraqi Freedom, or Operation New Dawn in the Southwest Asia theater of operations, Afghanistan, or other location that supported such an operation, as determined by the Secretary.”
Section 1118(a) of title 38, United States Code, authorizes presumptions of service connection prescribed by VA regulations for certain illnesses found to have a positive association with exposure to a biological, chemical or other toxic agent; environmental or wartime hazard, or preventive medicine or vaccine known or presumed to be associated with service in the Armed Forces in the Southwest Asia theater of operations during the Persian Gulf War. Section 1118(a)(3) requires VA to presume that a Veteran who served on active duty in the Southwest Asia theater of operations during the Persian Gulf War and has a pertinent illness to have been exposed to the agent, hazard, or medicine or vaccine associated with the illness in the prescribed regulations unless conclusive evidence establishes that the Veteran was not exposed to the agent, hazard, or medicine or vaccine. Section 2(b)(2) of the bill would require VA to treat as “a veteran who served on active duty in the Armed Forces in the Southwest Asia theater of operations during the Persian Gulf War” a “veteran who served on active duty in the Armed Forces during Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Iraqi Freedom, or Operation New Dawn in the Southwest Asia theater of operations, Afghanistan, or other location that supported such an operation, as determined by the Secretary.”
VA does not object to prohibiting the end of the section 1117 presumptive period before December 31, 2018, but does not support extending the definition of “Persian Gulf veteran” to include service in Afghanistan or other location that supported such operations. The term “Persian Gulf veteran” as used in section 1117 was initially associated with Veterans who served during Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm in 1990-1991. Section 1117 was based on complex of chronic symptoms that developed among those Veterans, and 38 U.S.C. § 1118 addresses environmental hazards associated with service in that theater of operations. The National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine, whose studies VA uses to determine which disabilities are associated with such service, has considered several hazards associated with that service, but those hazards are generally not associated with service in Afghanistan or in other locations supporting operations there. Consequently, VA does not support expanding the scope of sections 1117 and 1118 to include service in Afghanistan or in other support locations.
VA did not have sufficient time to accurately estimate costs for H.R. 2996 and will submit that information when it is available.
S. 4299, the “Quality Housing for Veterans Act,” would amend 38 U.S.C. § 2102A(e) to extend through December 31, 2014, VA’s authority to make Temporary Residence Adaptation grants to severely disabled Veterans who reside temporarily with family members. Currently, this authority will expire on December 31, 2012.
VA strongly supports the extension of this specially adapted housing authority. VA’s legislative proposal submitted to Congress on May 19, 2011, included a proposal to extend this authority for ten years.
No benefit or administrative costs would result from enactment of H.R. 4299.
H.R. 5735 would require the Secretary of Defense to establish in Arlington National Cemetery a “Tomb of Remembrance” for the interment of the cremated fragments of the remains of certain members of the Armed Forces who were killed in Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, Operation Iraqi Freedom or Operation New Dawn in Iraq, or any war or contingency operation designated after the date of enactment. The bill would require the Secretary of Defense to transfer the funds necessary to cover the costs to be incurred in establishing the Tomb of Remembrance from the account of the Office of the Secretary of Defense to the Account of the Secretary of the Army used to fund the operation and maintenance of Arlington National Cemetery.
Because H.R. 5735 would not affect the operations of or programs administered by VA, VA defers to the Department of Defense and the Department of the Army as to the merits of the bill. Nevertheless, because VA now provides the headstones and markers used at Arlington National Cemetery for individual gravesites and columbaria niches and the markers placed in memorial sections of the cemetery, VA could incur a cost to provide a marker for placement on the Tomb of Remembrance. However, VA cannot estimate the potential cost until a final design is determined.
H.R. 5880, the “Disability Examination Access Improvement Act,” would extend for five years VA’s authority to provide compensation and pension examinations by contract examiners. Under current law, this authority will expire on December 31, 2012.
VA strongly supports the extension of this authority, which is essential for VA’s ability to continue to provide prompt and high-quality medical disability examinations. If this authority is allowed to expire, VA will not be able to provide contracted disability examinations, and VA’s priority goal to eliminate the disability claims backlog will be adversely affected. Extending the authority for another five years would enable VA to effectively leverage discretionary appropriations as part of our response to increasing demands for medical disability examinations. Contracting for examinations is essential to VA’s objective of ensuring timely adjudication of disability compensation claims and allows the Veterans Health Administration to better focus its resources on providing needed heath care to Veterans.
No benefit or administrative costs would result from enactment of this bill. The Administration’s Fiscal Year 2013 budget request included this proposal.
This concludes my statement, Mr. Chairman. I would be happy to entertain any questions you or the other Members of the Subcommittee may have.