Witness Testimony of Shane Barker, Senior Legislative Associate, National Legislative Service, Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States
MADAM CHAIRWOMAN AND MEMBERS OF THIS COMMITTEE:
On behalf of the 2.1 million members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States and our Auxiliaries, the VFW would like to thank this committee for the opportunity to present its views on these bills.
H.R. 198, Veterans Dog Training Therapy Act
The VFW appreciates the intent behind this bill. However, we do not believe a VA medical center is the right environment for a pilot program involving dog-training. We believe the idea behind this legislation – to help veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder by incorporating a therapeutic dog training class as a part of their treatment – would be better achieved through established private sector organizations with sufficient oversight by VA. Partnering with outside entities that have experience and proven success in this area would provide the veteran with the outcomes this bill wants to evaluate. It would also localize the program by moving it from VA medical centers to the communities where many of our veterans live. Overall, we think such changes would achieve greater results with no further cost to VA, and with fewer complications for our veterans.
H.R. 1154, Veterans Equal Treatment for Service Dogs Act
The use of medical service dogs among veterans is increasing, and many of our newest veterans who are returning home from war with mental and physical disabilities have a particular need for their services. We believe that trained dogs play a significant role in helping to provide independence to individuals with a broad range of disabilities.
Currently, VA allows seeing-eye dogs to enter medical facilities without limitations. Senator Harkin’s legislation would allow all service dogs into facilities that receive VA funding. The VFW is happy to lend our support to a benefit that is often overlooked and can go a long way towards helping an individual with a disability who may not be able to perform a task independently.
H.R. 1855, the Veterans’ Traumatic Brain Injury Rehabilitative Services’ Improvements Act of 2011
The VFW supports this legislation to expand and improve the plan for rehabilitation and reintegration of TBI patients. This legislation would require VA to broaden their TBI treatment plans to focus on an injured veteran’s independence and quality of life while making improvements to their behavioral and mental health functioning. We know that VA is working to do more than merely stabilize these men and women, but we are fully supportive of adding language to the United States Code that requires VA to pursue treatment options that would improve their functioning.
It expands the scope of rehabilitative service for veterans suffering from brain injury to include behavioral and mental health concerns. As a result of this bill, the phrase “rehabilitative services” replaces the word “treatment” in pertinent areas of the United States Code, thereby conforming it to the prevailing wisdom that TBI patients deserve more than mere treatment of their injuries. This change is critical because these men and women deserve ongoing evaluation and additional intervention where necessary to ensure a full recovery. We believe the changes in this bill would make it easier for veterans struggling with the aftermath of a TBI to receive such coverage. Finally, this bill would also support TBI patients by associating sections of the law related to TBI rehabilitation and community reintegration to a broader definition of the term “rehabilitative services” that comprises a range of services such as professional counseling and guidance services. This bill would help to ensure our response to traumatic brain injuries consists of more than just healing the wounds that we can see. Our veterans deserve every chance to lead productive lives, which is why the VFW believes that VA and DOD should look into any and all potential rehabilitation and treatment models for veterans who suffer from TBI.
H.R. 2074, Veterans Sexual Assault Prevention Act
We thank Health Subcommittee Chairwoman Buerkle and Chairman Miller for introducing H.R. 2074, the “Veterans Sexual Assault Prevention Act,” and we are pleased to see this committee continuing to work diligently on this critical issue. As we have said before, one incident of assault, of a sexual nature or otherwise, is one too many. The VFW reaffirms, in no uncertain terms, the need for a zero-tolerance policy. Less than that is unacceptable and inexcusable. Veterans should never have to visit a VA medical facility with concerns about their personal safety.
We want the guilty punished, but we also strongly believe that any legislation signed into law should ensure exonerated employees are not adversely affected. VA must be extremely judicious not to allow unsubstantiated allegations to bring about negative consequences for the accused, while at the same time holding the guilty accountable for such heinous actions. The VFW does not want to see dedicated employees leave the VA system for this reason, so any successful cultural change within VA must include protections for innocent employees wrongfully accused.
The most important missing piece is a comprehensive, continuous, and evidence-based training program. All efforts to properly identify sexual assault and to create programs to forward allegations to appropriate officials are in vain if employees are not trained to be vigilant and to identify problem situations. We strongly believe that VA must institute a first-class training program that is mandatory for all VA employees to attend.
They must also clarify what constitutes sexual assault, because the lack of a clear and consistent VA-wide definition has allegedly led to many events not being reported, or resulted in no action on those events that were reported. GAO also recommended VA police create a system-wide process that would result in cases involving potential felonies to be automatically reported to the VA Office of the Inspector General. Frankly, we are shocked that such a common-sense Standard Operating Procedure does not already exist.
VA leadership has failed in their obligations for too long, and the hidden nature of this unacceptable problem requires Congress to act quickly. We stand ready to assist the committee in passing this legislation without delay.
H.R. 2530, a bill to amend title 38, United States Code, to provide for increased flexibility in establishing rates for reimbursement for State homes by the Secretary of Veterans Affairs for nursing home care provided to veterans.
The VFW supports this straightforward legislation to eliminate the rigid system currently in place to reimburse state homes for nursing home care provided to veterans. The current reimbursement system pays state homes uniformly across the country, without taking into account costs of living or costs of goods and services from state to state. These costs vary considerably, and the result of the uniform payment schedule results in some states doing well, and other states not being able to provide needed services without some significant negative financial impact.
The services state veterans homes provide are critical, and they are not looking for disproportional profits. They are looking to sustain themselves, and we strongly believe that VA must be a partner in that effort. This legislation would help achieve that by allowing VA to enter into contracts with individual state veterans homes for payment schedules that are crafted in consultation with the state home. This change will make these payments more equitable and sustainable for everyone involved, and this bill has broad stakeholder support. We strongly believe that it will put these complications to rest, and will work to bring about its passage into law.
Draft Legislation, the Honey Sue Newby Spina Bifida Attendant Care Act
The VFW supports this measure to give VA the authority to provide more appropriate care for Honey Sue Newby, and other children of Vietnam veterans suffering from Spina Bifida. The story of Newby is a harrowing tale of VA – for whatever reason – being counterproductive in providing care at every turn. It is also a story of perseverance on the part of this family to find the care that Honey Sue desperately needed. That provision of care was granted by Congress and earned by virtue of Mr. Newby’s service. However, the record is clear that they have suffered time and time again due to onerous VA requirements.
This bill will make it easier for family attendants to persevere through VA requirements as they care for a child with Spina Bifida by broadening the types of care VA can provide, and will allow VA to enter into contracts with providers who offer enhanced and new types of care. It expands outpatient care to include adult day health services. Perhaps most importantly, it expands home care to help offset having a live-in, unrelated personal caregiver in cases where not having one would result in admission to a hospital, a nursing care facility, or an intermediate care facility.
These changes will greatly improve the quality of life for families of veterans exposed to Agent Orange who have children who suffer from Spina Bifida. We strongly support this legislation and look forward to working with you to get it enacted.
Draft Legislation, Veterans Health Care Facilities Capital Improvement Act of 2011
The Veterans Health Care Facilities Capital Improvements Act of 2011 is necessary in building and utilizing VA properties in a way that will provide greater quality and access to care for veterans. The authorization of funds for major construction projects closely reflects the requests by VA, and exceeds, by nearly double, the FY2012 appropriations request for this line item. However, at this rate of authorization and funding, VA will not have the financial resources available to reach their capital planning goals outlined though VA’s Strategic Capital Investment Planning (SCIP). The authorization for medical facility leases fulfills VA’s request for establishing eight community-based outpatient clinics. The VFW agrees with this level of authorization.
Section 6 outlines the new authority for VA’s enhanced-use lease (EUL). Most importantly, this bill will extend EUL. Without this extension, which is due to expire December 31, 2011, VA will be limited in their ability to reduce homelessness and effectively use properties that are either vacant or underutilized. The VFW agrees with most of the amendments of EUL authorization including the consideration of EUL business plans beyond those proposed by the Under Secretary of Health, ensuring the leases comply with current scorekeeping rules, ensuring that VA’s liability is limited, clarification of payment of State and local taxes, and that funds derived from EUL will be deposited into VA’s Major and Minor construction accounts.
The VFW does have concerns with the amendment that removes the criteria that mandates EUL properties must “actively contribute to VA’s mission.” Removal of this provision could change the focus of VA from providing care for veterans to improving revenue of existing properties. Maintaining and improving care for veterans must always be the single focus of VA. Also, any revenue that is produced through the EUL program that would be shifted to VA’s Major and Minor construction accounts through the passage of this bill must be a supplement to, and not a substitute for, appropriating funds for these accounts.
The VFW agrees with Section 7 of this legislation. Currently, VA requests construction funding for the actual cost of construction, but leaves out activation costs. Section 7 would ensure that VA requests the full cost of construction costs.
The VFW holds no opinion on the naming of VA facilities. Therefore, the VFW provides no comment on Section 8 of this legislation.
The VFW supports all of the extensions of the expiring authorities that are found in Section 9 of this legislation.
Madam Chairwoman, this concludes my statement. I would be happy to answer any questions that you or the members of the Committee may have.
Information Required by Rule XI2(g)(4) of the House of Representatives
Pursuant to Rule XI2(g)(4) of the House of Representatives, the VFW has not received any federal grants in Fiscal Year 2011, nor has it received any federal grants in the two previous Fiscal Years.