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Witness Testimony of Ms. Diane Zumatto,National Legislative Director, AMVETS

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Chairman Runyan, Ranking Member McNerney, Congressman Walz and distinguished members of the subcommittee, as an author of The Independent Budget (IB), I thank you for this opportunity  to share with you the IB’s recommendations in what we believe to be the most fiscally responsible way of ensuring the quality and integrity of the care and benefits earned by Americans veterans.

The Department of Veterans’ Affairs (VA) National Cemetery Administration (NCA) maintains 131 of the nation’s 147 national cemeteries, as well as 33 soldiers’ lots. The 131 NCA operated cemeteries are composed of approximately 3.1 million gravesites and are located in 39 states and Puerto Rico. As of late 2010, there were more than 20,021 acres within established installations in the NCA.

VA estimates that approximately 22.4 million veterans are alive today and with the transition of an additional 1 million service members into veteran status over the next 12 months, this number is expected to continue to rise until approximately 2017.   On average, 14.4 percent of veterans choose a national or state veterans’ cemetery as their final resting place.  As new national and state cemeteries continue to open and as our aging veterans’ population continues to grow, we continue to be a nation at war on multiple fronts.  The demand for burial at a veterans’ cemetery will continue to increase.

The single most important obligation of the NCA is to honor the memory of America’s brave men and women who have selflessly served in this nation’s armed forces.  Many of the individual cemeteries, monuments, grave stones, grounds and related memorial tributes within the NCA system are richly steeped in history and represent the very foundation of these United States.

The Independent Budget veterans service organizations (IBVSOs) would like to acknowledge the dedication and commitment demonstrated by the NCA leadership and staff in their continued dedication to providing the highest quality of service to veterans and their families.  It is in the opinion of the IBVSOs that the NCA continues to meet its goals and the goals set forth by others because of its true dedication and care for honoring the memories of the men and women who have so selflessly served our nation.  We applaud the NCA for recognizing that it must continue to be responsive to the preferences and expectations of the veterans’ community by adapting or adopting new interment options and ensuring access to burial options in the national, state and tribal government-operated cemeteries.  We also believe it is important to recognize the NCA’s efforts in employing both disabled and homeless veterans.

NCA Accounts

            In FY 2011 the National Cemetery Administration operated on an estimated budget of $298.3 million associated with the operations and maintenance of its grounds. The NCA had no carryover for FY 2011.  The NCA was also able to award 44 of its 48 minor construction projects and had four unobligated projects that will be moved to FY 2012. Unfortunately, due to continuing resolutions and the current budget situation, the NCA was not able to award the remaining four projects.

            The IBVSOs support the operational standards and measures outlined in the National Shrine Commitment (PL 106-117, Sec. 613) which was enacted in 1999 to ensure that our national cemeteries are the finest in the world.  While the NCA has worked diligently improving the appearance of our national cemeteries, they are still a long way from where they should be.

            The NCA has worked tirelessly to improve the appearance of our national cemeteries, investing an estimated $39 million into the National Shrine Initiative in FY 2011. According to NCA surveys, as of October 2011 the NCA has continued to make progress in reaching its performance measures. Since 2006, the NCA has improved headstone and marker height and alignment in national cemeteries from 67 percent to 70 percent and has improved cleanliness of tombstones, markers and niches from 77 percent to 91 percent. Although the NCA is nearing its strategic goal of 90 percent and 95 percent, respectively, for height and alignment and cleanliness, more funding is needed to continue this delicate and labor-intensive work. Therefore, the IBVSOs recommend the NCA’s Operations and Maintenance budget to be increased by $20 million per year until the operational standards and measures goals are reached.

            The IBVSOs recommend an Operational and Maintenance budget of $280 million for the National Cemetery Administration for FY 2013 so it can meet the demands for interment, gravesite maintenance and related essential elements of cemetery operations.  This request includes $20 million for the National Shrine Initiative.

The IBVSOs call on the Administration and Congress to provide the resources needed to meet the critical nature of the NCA’s mission and to fulfill the nation’s commitment to all veterans who have served their country so honorably and faithfully.

State Cemetery Grant Programs

            The State Cemetery Grants Program (SCGP) complements the National Cemetery Administration’s mission to establish gravesites for veterans in areas where it cannot fully respond to the burial needs of veterans. Several incentives are in place to assist states in this effort. For example, the NCA can provide up to 100 percent of the development cost for an approved cemetery project, including establishing a new cemetery and expanding or improving an established state or tribal organization veterans’ cemetery.  New equipment, such as mowers and backhoes, can be provided for new cemeteries. In addition, the Department of Veterans’ Affairs may also provide operating grants to help cemeteries achieve national shrine standards.

            In FY 2011 the SCGP operated on an estimated budget of $46 million, funding 16 state cemeteries. These 16 state cemeteries included the establishment or ground breaking of five new state cemeteries, three of which are located on tribal lands, expansions and improvements at seven state cemeteries, and four projects aimed at assisting state cemeteries to meet the NCA national shrine standards.  Since 1978 the Department of Veterans’ Affairs has more than doubled the available acreage and accommodated more than a 100 percent increase in burials through this program.

            With the enactment of the “Veterans Benefits Improvement Act of 1998,” the NCA has been able to strengthen its partnership with states and increase burial services to veterans, especially those living in less densely populated areas without access to a nearby national cemetery. Through FY 2010, the state grant program has established 75 state veteran’s cemeteries in 40 states and U.S. territories.  Furthermore, in FY 2011 VA awarded its first state cemetery grant to a tribal organization.

            The Independent Budget veteran’s service organizations recommend that Congress fund the State Cemetery Grants Program at $51 million for FY 2013.  The IBVSOs believe that this small increase in funding will help the National Cemetery Administration meet the needs of the State Cemetery Grant Program, as its expected demand will continue to rise through 2017.  Furthermore, this funding level will allow the NCA to continue to expand in an effort of reaching its goal of serving 94 percent of the nation’s veteran population by 2015.

Veteran’s Burial Benefits

Since the original parcel of land was set aside for the sacred committal of Civil War Veterans by President Abraham Lincoln in 1862, more than 3 million burials have occurred in national cemeteries under the National Cemetery Administration.

In 1973, the Department of Veterans’ Affairs established a burial allowance that provided partial reimbursement for eligible funeral and burial costs. The current payment is $2,000 for burial expenses for service-connected deaths, $300 for nonservice-connected deaths and a $700 plot allowance. At its inception, the payout covered 72 percent of the funeral costs for a service-connected death, 22 percent for a nonservice-connected death and 54 percent of the cost of a burial plot.

Burial allowance was first introduced in 1917 to prevent veterans from being buried in potter’s fields. In 1923 the allowance was modified. The benefit was determined by a means test until it was removed in 1936. In its early history the burial allowance was paid to all veterans, regardless of their service connectivity of death. In 1973, the allowance was modified to reflect the status of service connection.

The plot allowance was introduced in 1973 as an attempt to provide a plot benefit for veterans who did not have reasonable access to a national cemetery.  Although neither the plot allowance nor the burial allowance was intended to cover the full cost of a civilian burial in a private cemetery, the recent increase in the benefit’s value indicates the intent to provide a meaningful benefit. The Independent Budget veterans service organizations are pleased that the 111th Congress acted quickly and passed an increase in the plot allowance for certain veterans from $300 to $700 effective October 1, 2011.  However, we believe that there is still a serious deficit between the original value of the benefit and its current value.

In order to bring the benefit back up to its original intended value, the payment for service-connected burial allowance should be increased to $6,160, the nonservice-connected burial allowance should be increased to $1,918 and the plot allowance should be increased to $1,150.  The IBVSOs believe Congress should divide the burial benefits into two categories: veterans within the accessibility model and veterans outside the accessibility model.

Congress should increase the plot allowance from $700 to $1,150 for all eligible veterans and expand the eligibility for the plot allowance for all veterans who would be eligible for burial in a national cemetery, not just those who served during wartime.  Congress should increase the service-connected burial benefits from $2,000 to $6,160 for veterans outside the radius threshold and to $2,793 for veterans inside the radius threshold.

Congress should increase the nonservice-connected burial benefits from $300 to $1,918 for all veterans outside the radius threshold and to $854 for all veterans inside the radius threshold.  The Administration and Congress should provide the resources required to meet the critical nature of the National Cemetery Administration’s mission and to fulfill the nation’s commitment to all veterans who have served their country so honorably and faithfully.

February 9, 2012

The Honorable Representative Jon Runyan, Chairman

U.S. House of Representatives

Committee on Veterans’ Affairs

335 Cannon House Office Building

Washington, D.C. 20510

Dear Chairman Runyan:

Neither AMVETS nor I have received any federal grants or contracts, during this year or in the last two years, from any agency or program relevant to the February 16, 2012, House Veterans Affairs Committee hearing on the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Budget Request for Fiscal Year 2013.

Sincerely,

Diane M. Zumatto

AMVETS National Legislative Director