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Witness Testimony of Thomas J. Berger, Ph.D., Executive Director, Veterans Health Council, Vietnam Veterans of America

Chairwoman Buerkle, Ranking Member Michaud, and Distinguished Members of the House Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on Health, Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA) thanks you for the opportunity to present our views on pending legislation for veterans and their families

H.R. 198, Veterans Dog Training Therapy Act, Directs the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to carry out a pilot program for assessing the effectiveness of addressing post-deployment mental health and post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms through a therapeutic medium of service dog training and handling for veterans with disabilities. Requires such program to be carried out at Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) medical centers that can provide training areas for such purposes.  

Although VVA generally supports this legislation, we have several questions:  1) What certification standards will be used to ensure that the animals can perform essential service dog skills?; and 2) What quantitative metrics/measurements will be used to measure the impact of the service dogs on the psychosocial, mental health and physiological  disorders suffered by the participating veterans?

H.R. 1154, Veterans Treatment of Service Dogs Act, Prohibits the Secretary of Veterans Affairs (VA) from prohibiting the use of service dogs in or on any VA facility or property or any facility or property that receives VA funding.

VVA generally supports this legislation, but again asks the question:   What constitutes certification of one’s animal as a “service dog?”

H.R. 1855, Veterans Traumatic Brain Injury Rehabilitative Services Act of 2011, Includes within a program of individualized rehabilitation and reintegration plans for veterans with traumatic brain injury (TBI): (1) the goal of maximizing the individual's independence and quality of life, and (2) improving such veterans' behavioral and mental health functioning. Requires the inclusion of rehabilitative services in a Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) comprehensive program of long-term care for veterans' TBI that has residential, community, and home-based components utilizing interdisciplinary treatment teams.

VVA strongly supports this legislation, and it is very clear that Command Sergeant Major Walz understands the necessity for broadly integrated and individualized psychosocial, mental health, and physical treatment plans and services in order maximize the quality of long-term care and quality of life for our veterans suffering from TBI.

H.R. 2074, Veteran Sexual Assault Prevention Act, Directs the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to develop and implement, by October 1, 2011, a centralized and comprehensive policy on reporting and tracking sexual assaults and other safety incidents at each medical facility of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), including: (1) risk-assessment tools; (2) mandatory security training; (3) physical security precautions (surveillance camera systems and panic alarm systems); (4) criteria and guidance for

employees communicating and reporting incidents to specified supervisory personnel, VA law enforcement officials, and the Office of Inspector General; (4) an oversight system within the Veterans Health Administration; (5) procedures for VA law enforcement officials investigating, tracking, and closing reported incidents; and (6) clinical guidance for treating sexual assaults reported over 72 hours after assault.

Requires the Secretary to: (1) submit an annual report to Congress on such incidents and policy implementation, and (2) prescribe applicable regulations. 

VVA strongly supports this legislation as an initial effort to address and correct the failures of the VA for protecting and safeguarding our veterans in VA facilities as noted in the June 2011 GAO report.

H.R. 2530, To amend title 38, United States Code, to provide for increased flexibility in establishing rates for reimbursement of State homes by the Secretary of Veterans Affairs for nursing home care provided to veterans.

VVA strongly supports this legislation as H.R. 2530 would correct problems that arose during the implementation of section 211 of P.L. 109-461 affecting State Veterans Homes.  With enactment of that law, Congress intended to change the reimbursement mechanism so that State Veterans Homes could provide nursing home care to veterans with service connected disabilities rated 70% or greater and be reimbursed at rates comparable to those provided to community contract nursing homes that provide such care.  However, the manner in which VA implemented the new regulations resulted in an unexpectedly low reimbursement rate that actually had the reverse outcome: State Homes now cannot afford to provide care to these, the most seriously disabled veterans. 

The proposed legislation introduced by Congressman Michaud would correct this problem by changing the statutory authority so that VA could enter into contracts or agreements with State Homes that would reimburse the homes for providing care to veterans rated 70% or greater, and be adequately reimbursed based on a new methodology to be developed by the VA in consultation with the State Homes.  The language of H.R. 2530 is virtually identical to that which VA has proposed in draft legislation submitted to Congress earlier this year, and is the result of months of negotiations between VA and the National Association of State Veterans Homes.  This legislation will achieve the goals of the original law, which was to provide veterans with service connected disabilities rate 70% or greater with an additional option, which may be more convenient, provide better care and usually costs less to the Federal government than the same care provided through VA-operated nursing homes or contract community homes.

Honey Sue Newby Spina Bifida Attendant Care Act draft legislation: To amend title 38, United States Code, to authorize the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to provide assisted living services to certain children of Vietnam veterans who are suffering from spina bifida.

VVA strongly supports this legislation as it will provide decades-long over-due services to the Vietnam veteran parents of now middle-aged children suffering from spina bifida.   

Veterans Health Care Facilities Capital Improvement Act of 2011 draft legislation:. To authorize certain Department of Veterans Affairs major medical facility projects and leases, to extend certain expiring provisions of law, and to modify certain authorities of the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, and for other purposes.

Although this legislation calls for needed construction modifications at a number of VA medical facilities, VVA cannot support this legislation in its present form as it is unclear as to whether the proposed changes suggested in Section 6. “Modification of Department of Veterans Affairs Enhanced-Use Land Authority” will eliminate any possible breaches of VA fiduciary duty for leasing property to private entities, as has been alleged to have occurred at the West Los Angeles Medical Center & Community Living Center campus.

Once again, on behalf of VVA National President John Rowan and our National Officers and Board, I thank you for your leadership in holding this important hearing on this legislation that is literally of vital interest to so many veterans, and should be of keen interest to all who care about our nation’s veterans. I also thank you for the opportunity to speak to this issue on behalf of America’s veterans.


Funding Statement

The national organization Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA) is a non-profit veterans' membership organization registered as a 501(c) (19) with the Internal Revenue Service.  VVA is also appropriately registered with the Secretary of the Senate and the Clerk of the House of Representatives in compliance with the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995.

VVA is not currently in receipt of any Federal grant or contract, other than the routine allocation of office space and associated resources in VA Regional Offices for outreach and direct services through its Veterans Benefits Program (Service Representatives).  This is also true of the previous two fiscal years.