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Witness Testimony of The Honorable Steven Muro, Under Secretary for Memorial Affairs, National Cemetery Administration, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

Chairman Runyan, Ranking Member McNerney and members of the Subcommittee, I am pleased to provide an overview of the Fiscal Year (FY) 2013 budget for the National Cemetery Administration (NCA).  Within the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), NCA is responsible for administering burial and memorial programs to meet the needs of Veterans, their families and survivors.  Our responsibilities include: managing 131 national cemeteries and 33 soldiers’ lots and monuments; furnishing headstones, markers and medallions for the graves of Veterans around the world; administering the Presidential Memorial Certificate program; executing the First Notice of Death Program; and, overseeing the Federal grants program for construction of state and tribal Veterans cemeteries. 

As we move forward into the next fiscal year, we project our workload numbers will continue to increase.  For FY 2013, we anticipate conducting over 119,000 interments of Veterans or their family members, maintaining and providing perpetual care for over 3.3 million gravesites, maintaining 8,700 developed acres, and processing approximately 350,000 headstone and marker applications.  We plan to meet this demand while maintaining our high level of customer service to our clients.  We are proud of the fact that for the fourth time in a 10-year period, NCA was ranked the best over the Nation’s top corporations and other federal agencies in an independent survey of customer satisfaction.       

VA’s burial and memorial programs are funded from both discretionary and mandatory accounts.  Mandatory funding is provided from the Compensation and Pension account, managed by the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA).  These funds are used to purchase headstones, markers, medallions and burial crypts.  I will focus my comments today on the discretionary funding, administered by NCA.  The President’s 2013 budget request includes a total of $372 million for NCA’s discretionary programs.  Of this amount, $258 million is included for operations and maintenance of our national cemeteries; $9.6 million is requested for our Major Construction program; $58 million for Minor Construction; and $46 million for the Veterans Cemetery Grants program.  The budget request will permit NCA to hire an additional 4 FTE to address expected increases in burials and to provide contract funding for additional maintenance requirements.

 VA’s Fiscal Year 2013 budget outlines the Department’s priorities and NCA continues to move forward to support the Department in achieving the specific goals of expanding access for our Veterans and ending Veteran homelessness.

With respect to increasing Veteran access to a burial option, the FY 2013 budget will enable VA to provide almost 90 percent—or close to 20 million—of the Veteran population with a burial option in a national, state or tribal Veterans cemetery within 75 miles of their homes.  The budget will allow NCA to continue progress to establish new national and columbarium-only satellite cemeteries, support states and tribes in establishing Veterans cemeteries, and implement a new policy aimed at reaching unserved rural Veterans.

In FY 2011, VA reduced the minimum Veteran population threshold requirement for building new national cemeteries from 170,000 to 80,000 within 75 miles of a proposed site.  As a result of this policy change, NCA is planning to establish five new national cemeteries in the areas of Central East Florida; Omaha, Nebraska; Western New York; Tallahassee, Florida; and Southern Colorado.  NCA is actively searching for land at these locations and expects to request related construction funding in future budgets.  With available resources, NCA will continue with land acquisition efforts and preliminary design for the five cemeteries in FY 2013.   

The budget also continues to support our urban initiative.  NCA plans to build columbarium-only satellite cemeteries in five urban locations: Chicago, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco.  Construction of these facilities will better serve the urban core and address concerns raised by NCA’s customers regarding time and distance challenges associated with accessing national cemeteries.  Funding was provided for Los Angeles, San Francisco (design) and Chicago in prior years.  The FY 2013 budget includes funding for the New York City area and Indianapolis will be included in a future budget request.     

In addition, the FY 2013 budget request will allow NCA to implement a new policy aimed at reaching unserved Veterans in rural areas that do not qualify for a national cemetery and where the construction of a state cemetery is not likely.  The budget includes an initiative to establish a national cemetery presence in eight rural areas where the Veteran population is less than 25,000 within a 75-mile radius service area.  These National Veteran Burial Lots would be NCA-owned and managed lots in public or private cemeteries.  As a result of this initiative, an additional 132,000 Veterans will have convenient access to a burial option in the following states: Idaho, Maine, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, Utah, Wisconsin and Wyoming.

NCA will continue its close partnership with the states in FY 2013.  The budget request provides $46 million for the Veterans Cemetery Grants Program.  The grants program provides an important complement to VA’s national cemeteries by further expanding burial access to Veterans, especially those living in rural areas.  FY 2013 funds will allow NCA to support states in collaboratively meeting high priority projects that serve Veterans, including those projects submitted by tribal governments.  As part of this program, VA will continue to offer operating grants to assist states and tribes in achieving and maintaining standards of appearance commensurate with national cemetery shrine status.  States and tribes are also able to continue their high level of service to Veterans with the recent Congressional action to increase the plot allowance to $700, and the subsequent adjustments based on the Consumer Price Index.  These funds, which are administered by VBA, are available to the states and tribes when they bury a Veteran and are used to offset operating costs. 

Regarding the goal to end Veteran homelessness, NCA will provide employment opportunities through the establishment of a new, paid Apprenticeship Training Program serving Veterans who are homeless or at risk of homelessness.  The program will be based on current NCA training for positions such as Cemetery Caretakers and Cemetery Representatives.  Veterans who successfully complete the program at national cemeteries will be eligible for full-time permanent employment at a national cemetery or may choose to pursue employment in the private sector. 

The 2013 budget will allow NCA to continue to achieve exceptionally high performance results.  We will process 90 percent of headstone and marker applications for Veterans buried in locations other than VA national cemeteries (e.g., private cemeteries, state and tribal Veterans cemeteries) within 20 days of receiving the request.  Ninety-five percent of gravesites in national cemeteries will be marked within 60 days of an interment.    

NCA is committed to maintaining its high level of customer satisfaction.  NCA achieved the top national rating four times in ten years on the prestigious American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) established by the University of Michigan.  The Index is the only national, cross-industry measure of satisfaction in the United States.  We surpassed over 100 other federal agencies, and industry leaders like Ford, FedEx, and Coca Cola.  NCA’s internal customer survey confirms this exceptional level of performance.  In FY 2011, 98 percent of respondents rated the appearance of national cemeteries as excellent and 95 percent rated the quality of service as excellent.  Our 2013 targets for cemetery appearance and quality of service are 99 and 98 percent, respectively.  

NCA attributes our success to the development and application of rigorous operational standards and measures that promote transparency and accountability, a national focus on training and strategic planning, as well as the continued support of the President and Congress.  The FY 2013 budget reflects the sustained and significant investments in national cemeteries provided over the past several years.  The base budget for operations includes nearly $32.9 million for projects to raise, realign and clean headstones and markers and repair sunken graves, as part of our ongoing effort to maintain national cemeteries as national shrines worthy of Veterans’ service and sacrifice.  My personal expectation of each employee in NCA is that they will provide Veterans and their families with outstanding customer service.     

All employees at the National Cemetery Administration are the custodians of a sacred trust.  We strive to be the model of excellence in the delivery of burial benefits and we are proud of our unprecedented customer satisfaction scores.  We have created a culture of accountability and continuous management improvement.  We know we have just one chance to get it right.  When we make a mistake, we address it immediately and openly.  As you know, we recently became aware of headstones that were set one gravesite off at Ft. Sam Houston National Cemetery in Texas that resulted from a contracted gravesite renovation project.  The discovery of these errors, for which we take full responsibility, led me to direct a system wide audit of all VA national cemeteries that have undergone gravesite renovations in the past 10 years.  As part of this audit and other due diligence, NCA has reviewed an estimated 1.3 million gravesites as of January 23, 2012.  In total, 115 headstones and markers were identified as being offset by one gravesite and needed to be reset, four headstones needed to be ordered and placed on unmarked gravesites, and eight caskets or urns needed to be reburied.  We have contacted the affected families where possible, extended our sincere apologies and made the appropriate corrections.  We will review the remaining 1.8 million gravesites at VA national cemeteries by the end of calendar year 2012, and report our findings to the Committee.  To minimize these errors in the future, we have improved procedures for the accountability of remains and will hire certified contracting officer representatives at each of our Memorial Service Network (MSN) offices to oversee future gravesite renovation projects. 

Our veteran-focused work ethic is no surprise, given that 73.5 percent of NCA employees are Veterans and 80 percent of our cemetery directors are Veterans.  Since January 2009, NCA has hired more than 250 Operation Enduring Freedom/Operation Iraqi Freedom Veterans—almost 50 were hired since June 2011.  NCA is also committed to contracting with small businesses, especially businesses owned by Veterans and service-disabled Veterans.  In FY 2011, NCA far exceeded the Secretary’s goals for awards to small businesses:  NCA awarded 77 percent of contracts to service-disabled Veteran owned small businesses, which was significantly above the Secretary’s target of 10 percent.  In addition, NCA met all goals in every contracting set-aside.  We expect to achieve similar results in FY 2013.     

Building upon our success, we look toward the future and the needs our Veterans will have in the years to come.  In 2011, NCA initiated an independent study of emerging burial practices including “green” burial techniques, such as biodegradable urns, underwater cremation reefs and other environmentally sensitive options, to identify those that may be appropriate and feasible for planning purposes.  The study will be completed in 2012 and will include a survey of Veterans to ascertain their preferences and expectations for new burial options.  The completed study will provide comprehensive information and analysis for leadership consideration of new burial options. 

The VA’s 2013 Office of Information and Technology (OIT) budget includes approximately $10 million for operation and maintenance and $11 million for development projects in support of NCA.  These funds will enable NCA to not only maintain its current network and data center, but to continue to upgrade its major information technology systems and processes that will improve quality, minimize the possibility of error and reduce the time needed to deliver burial and memorial benefits.  As part of our oversight responsibilities and commitment to transparency, NCA instituted enhanced accountability measures and maintained our focus on workforce training.  NCA shared these aspects of our success with Arlington National Cemetery and recently requested that a planning meeting be scheduled to establish the joint working group recommended by the Government Accountability Office (GAO).  We look forward to sharing best practices with our Department of Defense partners.

Mr. Chairman, this concludes my remarks.  I appreciate your and the subcommittee’s continued support of NCA and its mission as the custodians of a sacred trust.  I am happy to answer any questions.  Thank you.