Font Size Down Font Size Up Reset Font Size

Sign Up for Committee Updates

 

Witness Testimony of Patrick Campbell, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, Legislative Director

Madam Chairwoman and members of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity, on behalf of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), thank you for this opportunity to testify in front of this subcommittee again, especially with so many important pieces of legislation being considered at one time.

  1. H.R. 5684 “Veterans Education Improvement Act”

In January, IAVA along with the other Veteran Service Organizations (VSO) sitting with me today presented to you our top priorities for reforming the education benefits for veterans. After months of discussion and debate, the VSO and Education community united behind two critical reforms. We need a GI Bill that:

  1. Fully Covers the Cost of Education at any Public School in the Country

  2. Compensates Guard/Reserve Servicemembers for Serving Multiple Tours

We are happy to see that this committee is continuing to focus on the plight of servicemembers attempting to earn a degree with substandard education benefits. If enacted, H.R. 5684 would mean a considerable improvement in education benefits for veterans across the country.

IAVA is encouraged to see provisions that would increase the monthly rate for education benefits under Chapter 30 to $1950/month, an increase of 77%. At most, a veteran would receive $17,550/yr. which is slightly above the average cost of a public school education, currently at $17,336/yr. according to the College Board.

We also support the inclusion of a 5-year usage extension, allowing servicemembers to pay back their student loans, and many of the administrative changes contained in the bill. By adding additional staff, money for information technology and increasing the per-veteran fee paid to schools for GI bill administrators, veterans who depend on this benefit will experience substantially better customer service. We thank the chairwoman and this committee for their hard work on this bill.

However, to borrow a phrase used in the 1944 debates about the original GI bill, “Not all that glitters is gold.” I have testified before this committee that the current Chapter 30 benefit structure is fundamentally flawed and unfortunately, this bill fails to address key structural issues with the benefit.

First, flat-rate education benefits create an incentive for veterans to attend the cheapest school possible and do not reward veterans for challenging themselves. Second, for many veterans attending school in high-cost urban areas even $17,550/yr will not cover the full cost of a public school education. Third, requiring veterans to burn months of entitlement to pay for upfront costs, such as tuition and books, will discourage veterans from completing a 4-year degree. Last and most importantly, there is no mechanism for this benefit to keep up with the rising cost of education.

  1. Flat Rate Benefits Create Disincentives

The genius behind the original 1944 GI bill was that it challenged veterans to “be all they  could be” by rewarding those veterans who attended more challenging and consequently more expensive schools. The benefit, which paid for the full cost of tuition and provided a monthly living stipend, was a promise to the veteran: "You worry about getting accepted and the government will cover the cost." Unfortunately, when the GI bill transferred to a flat monthly rate in 1977, veterans were forced to choose between more difficult schools that would require them to work a second job or attending cheaper and easier schools where they would be able to pocket some of their education benefits.

A veteran attending a community college in rural America will be pocketing almost $7,000/yr. (over $11,000 if they apply for a Pell grant) under this proposed benefit scheme, while other veterans will still need to take out loans or work to see their education paid for.

 

SE Tech. (SD)

U. of Ark.

Cal. Berkeley

Notre Dame

Tuition:

$3,800

$6,038

$8,382

$36,850

Room & Board:

$5,900

$7,982

$13,848

$9,830

Other Expenses:

$1,000

$3,138

$3,076

$2,350

Total Cost of Educ.:

$10,700

$17,158

$25,308

$49,030

vs. HR 5684Benefits

$6,850

$392

($7,758)

($31,480)

This phenomenon explains why many veterans choose the cheapest path to earning a college degree and why online courses have the highest rates of GI Bill users, and why, according to a RAND study from 2000, “90 percent of veterans go to two-year colleges” compared to “38 percent of all students” (Asch, Fair and Kilburn, RAND, 2000).  IAVA recommends modifying H.R. 5684 to provide veterans an incentive to challenge themselves by providing tuition credits up to a set amount, preferably at least the average cost of tuition at public university (currently $6,185/year, according to the College Board.

  1. Benefit Does Not Cover Full Cost of Education at Many Public Schools

IAVA believes that any new education benefit should renew the promise made to our men and women in uniform back in 1944, by guaranteeing that these veterans will be able to attend any public university with their GI bill benefits. Although this benefit will cover the full cost of education at any public school in Arkansas, Indiana, Kansas and South Dakota, the benefit falls well short for public institutions in California and New York. In California alone, the benefit will not cover the cost of education at any of the University of California campuses nor fourteen of the California State Universities. In New York, the overall benefit is slightly below the typical cost of education at a State University of New York (SUNY) campus-- currently estimated at $17,630/yr.-- and the cost of education at many SUNY campuses exceeds that estimate.

  1. Burning Future Entitlement Discourages Finishing Degrees

IAVA agrees that charging advance payments used to help veterans pay for initial education costs from the final months of a veteran’s education entitlement, as provided for in Section 19 of H.R. 5684, would be a marked improvement from the current system. However, IAVA also believes that H.R. 5684 should abandon the advance payment scheme altogether in exchange for upfront tuition payments made directly to the school.

Currently, veterans can only use one month of education entitlement every year to help defray the large start-up cost associated with paying for tuition and fees. The current value of one month of entitlement is $1,101 ($1,950 under H.R 5684) and that amount does little to help a veteran pay the $6,185 average tuition payment for a four-year public university. Furthermore, if a veteran were to use advance payments for all four years of their education, by the time they got to their final semester they would have no educational benefits left. Either option, taking or not taking advance payments leaves the veteran in a Catch-22. IAVA recommends modifying H.R. 5684 to strike the advance payment system and provide tuition credits paid directly to the school that are not charged against a veteran’s monthly entitlement.

  1. Value of Benefit Diminishes Rapidly

There is no mechanism for this new benefit to keep up with the rising cost of education. Since H.R. 5684 does not modify the current yearly increases linked to the Consumer Price Index, every year a veteran remains in service the value of their education benefit dwindles. The cost of education has outpaced inflation by over 100% since 1984 and 34% since 1996. Based on the previous increases to the CPI (Bureau of Labor & Statistics) and Total Charges for education (College Board) this is what the new education benefit will look like in five and ten years.

5 years

SE Tech. (SD)

U. of Ark.

Cal. Berkeley

Notre Dame

Cost of Education (40% increase)

$           14,980

$     24,021

$          35,431

$        68,642

HR 5684 Benefit (18% increase)

$           20,743

$     20,743

$          20,743

$        20,743

Difference

$             5,763

$     (3,278)

$         (14,688)

$       (47,899)

 

10 years

SE Tech. (SD)

U. of Ark.

Cal. Berkeley

Notre Dame

Cost of Education (82% increase)

$           19,501

$     31,270

$          46,124

$        89,357

HR 5684 Benefit (30% increase)

$           22,885

$     22,885

$          22,885

$        22,885

Difference

$             3,385

$     (8,385)

$         (23,238)

$       (66,472)

In ten years, we will be in the same situation we are right now where two-year universities will be the only type of education available to veterans who depend on their GI Bill benefits to pay for school. IAVA recommends linking yearly increases to education benefits to be based on the rising cost of education as tracked by the Department of Education and not on the Consumer Price Index as it is done now.

  1. Conclusion

IAVA estimates that H.R. 5684 will cost approximately $1.8 billion in FY2009. The chart below breaks down that approximation into cost estimates of each of the various new provisions.

New Education Benefits:

$1.66 billion

Chapter 30:

$1.47 billion

Chapter 1607:

$189 million

Buy-in Adjustment:

$112 million

150 Full Time Employees:    

$10 million

State Approving Agencies:

$13 million

Increasing Fee/Veteran:   

$5 million

Work Study Program: 

$10 million

IAVA recommends that H.R. 5684 be amended to ensure that all public universities will be covered by these new education benefits. IAVA suggests that H.R. 5684 should accomplish this goal by creating an additional tuition payment, no less then $6,185/yr., that is paid directly to the school. IAVA also recommends that H.R. 5684 is amended so that yearly increases are linked to the growing cost of education to ensure that this benefit will remain robust for the next generation of servicemembers.

  1. H.R. 4883 Extension of Servicemember Civil Relief Act Homeowner Protections

This bill will extend the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act to provide for a limitation on the sale, foreclosure or seizure of property owned by a servicemember during the one-year period following the servicemember's period of military service. The current protection of 90 days from adversarial proceedings is inadequate for many returning veterans, especially while they are facing the daunting task of readjusting to civilian life. IAVA endorses this straight forward and helpful measure.

  1. H.R. 4884 “The Helping Our Veterans to Keep Their Homes Act”

H.R. 4884 will allow veterans to refinance their home loans up to the full value of their residence or farm, limit fees for VA loan guarantees to only 1% of the total loan value, extend a series of demonstration projects, raise the overall “maximum guaranty amount”, emplace yearly increases to the maximum loan guaranty based on the Consumer Price Index and require the Secretary of the VA to review the loan process for condominium purchases. Veterans, much like their civilian counterparts, are struggling to keep their homes and lives in tack even with foreclosure clouds hanging over this nation.

The provisions of this bill will allow veterans to refinance their home loans and take advantage of both lower interest rates and the security of VA’s home loan guaranty. The increase to the “maximum guaranty amount” and the linking of this maximum to the CPI will ensure that veterans’ home loans will continue to be a valuable benefit for generations to come. There does however appear to be a minor typo in section 2(e) of this bill. The bill should read “by ‘striking 25 percent of’ and inserting ‘150 percent of.’” IAVA endorses this timely and important legislation.

  1. H.R. 4889 “The Guard and Reserves Are Fighting Too Act”

IAVA strongly endorses recodification of Chapter 1607, education benefits for Reservists who have served at least one active-duty deployment, from Title 10 to Title 38. Education benefits for these servicemembers should be considered a readjustment benefit and therefore should be administered by the Department of Veterans Affairs, not the Department of Defense. H.R. 4889 would recodify Chapter 1607 into Title 38, without making any substantial changes to the Chapter 1607 program. However, H.R. 4889 does not contain any of the amendments to Chapter 1607 contained in last year’s National Defense Authorization Act. IAVA believes that H.R. 4889 must not only contain the provisions included in the NDAA, but also deal directly with two issues.

First, H.R. 4889 must clarify that Reserve and National Guard servicemembers deployed from or retiring into the Inactive Ready Reserve (IRR) are still entitled to portability of their education benefits after they separate from the military. This was the original intent of the legislation passed in the NDAA, but the Department of Veterans Affairs has interpreted the portability provision extremely narrowly, which has caused much angst and confusion among the veteran community.

Second, benefits for Reserve/National Guard servicemembers should be based on the cumulative length of their active-duty deployments and not on their single longest deployment. This fix would eliminate a glaring inequity faced by reservists serving multiple deployments. Currently Marine Reservists serving more frequent but shorter tours never qualify for the higher level of REAP benefits. The average Marine reservist has been deployed on multiple 9-month tours and therefore might have served 18 months of active-duty but still receive $220/month less in educational benefits then an Army National Guardsman who served the same amount of active- duty. IAVA strongly endorses modifying the current Chapter 1607 structure of benefits to be based on cumulative service and by adding intermediary qualification steps that increase the level of education benefits for every six months of service (see attachment).

IAVA can not endorse H.R. 4889, until the issues mentioned above are addressed.

  1. H.R. 4539 “Department of Veterans Affairs Loan Guaranty Cost Reduction Act”

As stated above, IAVA is supportive of allowing veterans to refinance their home loans up to the full value of their residence or farm and raising the overall “maximum guaranty amount” which would be provided for in this bill. IAVA is also supportive of programs that reduce the closing cost of affordable homes.

IAVA is unable, however, to comment on the provision concerning “limitation on amount of fee” because the text of that section relies on a reference to a provision in the Federal Home loan Mortgage Corporation Act (12 U.S. C. 1454(a)(2)) that appears to be completely unrelated to limitations on fees. IAVA is generally supportive of increases for loan guaranties for affordable housing, though we are curious why the veteran must be “first owner-occupant” to qualify for the benefit. Lastly, IAVA recommends that H.R. 4539 provide the Secretary of Veterans Affairs further guidance in establishing regulations concerning “maximum income amount[s]” that would determine eligibility for this program.

  1. H.R. 3646 Joint Employment Study

This bill will direct the Secretary of Veterans Affairs and the Secretary of Labor to conduct a joint study on the fields of employment for which the greatest need for employees exists in various geographic areas. IAVA only recommends that the findings of these studies be integrated in the Department of Veterans Affairs Transition Assistance Programs’ (TAP) presentations to separating active personnel and be sent to the pertinent National Guard and Reserve centers across the nation.

  1. H.R. 5664 Reviewing Adaptive Housing Plans & Specifications

H.R.5664 directs the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to update at least once every six years the plans and specifications for specially adapted housing furnished to veterans by the Secretary. IAVA has no position on this bill.

  1. H.R. 3798 “National Guard Employment Protection Act”

This bill will extend Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA) protections to National Guard servicemembers who are “ordered to perform training or other duty” with or without their consent that is above and beyond the required normal one weekend a month and two weeks a year. USERRA provides meaningful protections for these citizen soldiers and should be extended to all forms of involuntary call-ups. IAVA strongly endorses this legislation.

  1. H.R. 3681 “Veterans Benefit Awareness Act”

H.R. 3681 will authorize the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to advertise in the national media to promote awareness of benefits administered by the Secretary. IAVA has testified many times that we believe that the VA is a passive system that waits for the veteran to ask for help. H.R. 3681 will allow the VA to reach out to many veterans across this country by advertising in the national media and alerting them that they are entitled to benefits. This provision is long overdue and IAVA emphatically endorses the Veterans Benefit Awareness Act.

  1. H.R. 3393 “Reservist Access to Justice Act”

The Reservist Access to Justice Act will expand USERRA protections to apply to all federal, state and private employers. The purpose of USERRA was to encourage “noncareer service in the uniformed service by eliminating… disadvantages to civilian careers… minimiz[ing] disruption… by providing prompt reemployment [and] prohibit[ing] discrimination against” 38 U.S.C. 4301(a) (2007). IAVA believes that the federal government should be held to at least the same standard as the private sector when dealing with our service men and women.

This bill will set a minimum recovery for a successful USERRA claim. A veteran will receive compensation for either their lost wages and benefits or $20,000, whichever is greater. Many veterans fail to pursue USERRA discrimination claims against their employers, because the prospects of a long legal fight with the possibility of a minuscule recovery leaves a veteran little reason to vindicate their rights. Furthermore, other forms of discrimination claims have similar recovery guidelines. Although IAVA is strongly supportive of this provision, we suggest that USERRA remedies adopt the Title VII tiered model that sets higher penalties for discrimination claims against larger employers.

H.R. 3393 will allow for punitive damages against employers whose discrimination against servicemembers is “done with malice or reckless indifference.” This provision would directly affect repeat offenders that continue to ignore USERRA protections even after the employer is made aware of the existence and relevance of these protections.  This bill will also require courts to use their full equity powers, including injunctions, “to vindicate fully the rights and benefits of persons” protected under USERRA. This will allow courts to enjoin employers from firing an employee while a USERRA claim is being processed.

Lastly, the bill would definitely clarify that USERRA claims would be exempt from binding arbitration agreements, even in spite of recent court decision to the contrary. Congress had clearly intended to exempt USERRA complaints from binding arbitration agreements. The USERRA statute states, “In the case of an action against a private employer… the district courts of the United States shall have jurisdiction of the action.” USERRA also “supersedes any… contract, agreement, policy, plan, practice… that reduces, limits, or eliminates in any manner any right or benefit… including the establishment of additional prerequisites to the exercise of any such right or the receipt of any such benefit.” This very committee stated that USERRA claims are not to be preempted by binding arbitration in House Report 103-65. “It is the Committee's intent that, even if a person protected under the Act resorts to arbitration, any arbitration decision shall not be binding as a matter of law.”

IAVA strongly endorses this H.R. 3393 “Reservist Access to Justice Act.”

  1. H.R. 3298 “21st Century Servicemembers Protection Act”

The “21st Century Servicemembers Protection Act” is a long over due overhaul of the Servicemember Civil Relief Act. Arguably the most important provision of this bill is the section that allows for the termination or suspension of service contracts made by a servicemember or on behalf of a servicemember.

While I was in Iraq, I was required to pay a monthly fee to my cell phone provider in order to keep my cell phone contract current. Even after paying 12 months of fees to Cingular wireless, when I returned home I was unable to get a replacement phone with my old number without paying a deposit of $500. I spent five hours of my first day back from Iraq in the mall just trying to get my service restored. It took over 7 months for the whole issue to get resolved and it involved filing a complaint to the FCC and switching service providers.

IAVA is encouraged to see that this protection has been expanded to contracts made on behalf of a servicemember, because many servicemembers are sharing contracts with their families and therefore are being denied protections because they are not the “name on account.”

H.R. 3298 also creates a meaningful remedy for violations of the 6% interest cap provided for in section 207 of the Servicemember Civil Relief Act. Currently there is no penalty for a creditor who simply ignores this important protection. This bill would allow for the recovery of damages caused by higher interest rates and provide a penalty up to $10,000 for creditors who willfully or negligently violate this protection.

IAVA strongly endorses this legislation. IAVA also recommends that H.R. 3298 adopt section 3 of the Veterans Education Tuition Support Act, H.R. 2910, which clarifies that student loans do qualify for the 6% interest rate cap.

  1. H.R. 3467 “Second Chance for America’s Veterans Act”

The “Second Chance for America’s Veterans Act” extends programs that provide counseling, job placement, health care and housing to veterans to help veterans in the transition from prison or mental institutions to the workforce. Based on the demonstration project called the Incarcerated Veterans Transition Program, this model has been shown to reduce veteran recidivism rates by 90%. IAVA supports the authorization and appropriation of $15 million for this program.

  1. H.R. 3889 Longitudinal Study of Vocation Rehabilitation Programs

H.R. 3889 would require the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to conduct a longitudinal study of the vocational rehabilitation programs administered by the Secretary. IAVA has no position on this bill.

Respectfully Submitted,  Patrick Campbell, Legislative Director, Iraq & Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA)