Legislative Hearing on H.R. 674, H.R. 1273, H.R. 1900, H.R. 1901, H.R. 2346, H.R. 2696 and H.R. 2697.
LEGISLATIVE HEARING ON H.R. 674, H.R. 1273, H.R. 1900, H.R. 1901, H.R. 2346, H.R. 2696, AND H.R. 2697
SUBCOMMITTEE ON DISABILITY ASSISTANCE AND MEMORIAL AFFAIRS
COMMITTEE ON VETERANS' AFFAIRS
U.S. HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES
ONE HUNDRED TENTH CONGRESS
JULY 31, 2007
SERIAL No. 110-40
U.S. GOVERNMENT PRINTING OFFICE
For sale by the Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office
CORRINE BROWN, Florida
STEVE BUYER, Indiana, Ranking
Malcom A. Shorter, Staff Director
SUBCOMMITTEE ON DISABILITY ASSISTANCE AND MEMORIAL AFFAIRS
Pursuant to clause 2(e)(4) of Rule XI of the Rules of the House, public hearing records of the Committee on Veterans' Affairs are also published in electronic form. The printed hearing record remains the official version. Because electronic submissions are used to prepare both printed and electronic versions of the hearing record, the process of converting between various electronic formats may introduce unintentional errors or omissions. Such occurrences are inherent in the current publication process and should diminish as the process is further refined.
C O N T E N T S
July 31, 2007
Legislative Hearing on H.R. 674, H.R. 1273, H.R. 1900, H.R. 1901, H.R. 2346, H.R. 2696, and H.R. 2697
American Legion, Alec S. Petkoff, Assistant Director, Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation Commission
Prepared statement of Mr. Petkoff
American Veterans (AMVETS), Raymond C. Kelley, Legislative Director
Prepared statement of Mr. Kelley
Fossella, Hon. Vito, a Representative in Congress from the State of New York
Prepared statement of Congressman Fossella
International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association, Robert M. Fells, External Chief Operating Officer and General Counsel
Prepared statement of Mr. Fells
Paralyzed Veterans of America, Carl Blake, National Legislative Director
Prepared statement of Mr. Blake
Rahall, Hon. Nick J., II, a Representative in Congress from the State of West Virginia
Prepared statement of Congressman Rahall
Veterans of Foreign Wars of the Untied States, Eric A. Hilleman, Deputy Director, National Legislative Service
Prepared statement of Mr. Hilleman
SUBMISSIONS FOR THE RECORD
MATERIAL SUBMITTED FOR THE RECORD
Hon. James B. Peake, Secretary, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, to Hon. Bob Filner, Chairman, Committee on Veterans Affairs, letter dated July 7, 2008, transmitting Administration views on H.R. 156, H.R. 1273, H.R. 1900, and H.R. 1901
LEGISLATIVE HEARING ON H.R. 674, H.R. 1273, H.R. 1900, H.R. 1901, H.R. 2346, H.R. 2696, AND H.R. 2697
Tuesday, July 31, 2007
U. S. House of Representatives,
Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs,
Committee on Veterans' Affairs,
The Subcommittee met, pursuant to notice, at 3:30 p.m., in Room 334, Cannon House Office Building, Hon. John J. Hall [Chairman of the Subcommittee] presiding.
Present: Representatives Hall, Rodriguez, Hare, Berkley, and Lamborn.
Mr. HALL. Okay. Sorry for the extra long delay. Welcome back. The Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs will come to order.
Good afternoon. First would everybody please rise and join me in the Pledge of Allegiance. Flags are at either end of the room.
[Pledge of Allegiance.]
Mr. HALL. I would like to thank the witnesses for taking time to appear today and for their patience with our voting schedule and also for presenting testimony on these important measures, H.R. 674, H.R. 1273, H.R. 1900, H.R. 1901, H.R. 2346, H.R. 2696 and H.R. 2697, all of which we will be considering today.
Mr. HALL. H.R. 674, introduced by Congressman Gutierrez which would repeal the sunset of the Advisory Committee on Minority Veterans (ACMV) slated to occur December 31, 2009 if there is no intervening congressional action.
As I stated during our joint hearing with the Health Subcommittee, I am especially concerned about the pending expiration of this authorization. In light of the June 2007 report from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs' (VA's) Health Services Research and Development Service entitled, "Racial and Ethnic Disparities in the VA Health Care System: A Systematic Review," which found that racial disparities exist in all clinical areas and that the disparities in healthcare delivery are contributing to measurable differences in health outcomes, this Committee is definitely still necessary. It also found that the disparate treatment in the VA appears to affect African-American and Hispanic veterans more significantly.
With minorities comprising 20 percent of all of our Nation's veterans, I, like Mr. Gutierrez, believe the Advisory Committee on Minority Veterans plays an essential and indispensable role for the VA and should be made into a permanent fixture.
We will also receive testimony on three bills regarding veterans' memorial benefits, H.R. 1273, H.R. 2346, H.R. 2696 by Ms. Berkley, Mr. Fossella and Mr. Lamborn, our Ranking Member. Mr. Lamborn will be here sometime soon, we hope. He is currently in another hearing that hopefully will allow him to leave and come over here.
In the meantime, the minority side is represented by Counsel, Kingston Smith. Mr. Lamborn and Ms. Berkley's bills, among other things, seek to increase the plot and headstone or marker allowance for veterans who choose to be laid to rest in State or private cemeteries. Mr. Fossella's bill, H.R. 2346, is intended to improve the process for determining where our national cemeteries are located. I know that because of changing migration patterns and simple geographic configurations, the current criteria of a 170,000 veteran population in a 75-mile radius is not always a workable paradigm. I am also aware that the VA is currently evaluating its memorial benefits plan, and I look forward to hearing testimony on its progress in this area before the April 2008 targeted completion date.
We will also hear from Mr. Rahall on two bills that he sponsored, which would expand the category of those veterans eligible to receive pensions for nonservice-connected-disability death or service. H.R. 1900 would do so by providing this pension to veterans receiving expeditionary medals, and H.R. 1901 would do so by including those veterans who served in the Korean Peninsula, Lebanon, Panama and Grenada. I look forward to receiving testimony on these two important measures.
Lastly, H.R. 2697, also sponsored by Mr. Lamborn would expand the eligibility for veterans' mortgage life insurance to include members of the Armed Forces receiving specially adaptive housing. I know it is often difficult for these servicemembers to acquire commercial insurance policies. This bill would close that gap between the military and VA military benefits. This change is now more necessary than ever for our returning Operation Enduring Freedom/Operations Iraqi Freedom (OEF/OIF) veterans. I will allow Mr. Lamborn, our Ranking Member, to read his opening statement when he is able to join us.
And if it is okay, we will go right ahead to our first panel, which has shrunk from three to two. Welcome, the Honorable Nick Rahall. Mr. Gutierrez apparently is not able to join us, and the Honorable Vito Fossella. Your written statements will be entered into the hearing record so feel free to deviate from them.
[The statement of Chairman Hall appears in the Appendix.]
Mr. HALL. Mr. Rahall, we will start with your testimony and you are recognized for 5 minutes.
STATEMENTS OF THE HON. NICK RAHALL, A REPRESENTATIVE IN CONGRESS FROM THE STATE OF WEST VIRGINIA; AND HON. VITO FOSSELLA, A REPRESENTATIVE IN CONGRESS FROM THE STATE OF NEW YORK
Mr. RAHALL. Thank you very much, Chairman Hall and Ranking Member soon to be here, and my good friends and colleagues Mr. Rodriguez and Ms. Berkley. It is very nice to be with you today.
I thank you and the Members of the Veterans' Affairs Committee for what you have done in recent months to honor our brave men and women in uniform.
The Committee knows that for centuries, we have witnessed the personal courage and sacrifice made by millions of Americans who have served our country. They have done so proudly without hesitation to protect our freedoms and our way of life and to help ensure peace in various regions worldwide. These individuals represent the best of America and I believe it is imperative that we in the Congress do everything in our power to honor them when they return home from their service.
Too often when these young men and women do return, as the Committee is very well aware, we do not always honor their bravery with the full measure of respect and gratitude that it deserves. I believe we should take this opportunity to help ensure that our veterans regardless of the time frame of their service receive appropriate recognition and benefits. Under current law, veterans may only meet eligibility requirements to draw a full pension if they have served in combat during a declared period of war. While this method was sufficient for the majority of veterans who served in America's 20th century engagements, America's evolving role in the world has necessitated the expansion and adaptation of our veterans benefit programs, including those pertaining to pensions. I believe this Subcommittee would agree that the veterans who put their lives on the line and suffer losses during undeclared times of conflict are no less admirable or deserving of thanks than those who serve in declared conflicts.
My first bill, H.R. 1900, would expand eligibility for pension benefits through the VA to veterans who have received the Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal. This medal was established in 1961 by John F. Kennedy to recognize the service of American veterans in light of the expanding involvement of the U.S. in conflicts outside the scope of a "period of war."
This medal is still awarded today to those men and women who serve in hostile regions, but not all of these courageous veterans receive full benefits. My second bill, H.R. 1901, would provide the guarantees of a pension to veterans who served in Korea, Lebanon, Grenada, and Panama. The bill specifically extends benefits to the following: Veterans who served in Korea from February 1, 1955, through August 4, 1964, and from May 8, 1975, through 1990; veterans who served in Lebanon and Grenada from August 24, 1982, through July 31, 1984; and finally veterans who served in Panama from December 20, 1989, through January 31, 1990. This bill would benefit those qualifying veterans who facilitated the overthrow of General Noriega in Panama as well as those who served in the conflict in Lebanon in 1983 when Americans, as we all know, lost 241 Marines to a suicide attack on our barracks in Beirut.
Though the soldiers and those who served during additional conflicts covered by this bill were clearly at risk, they are currently not eligible to receive veterans' pensions. Nonetheless, in these cases, danger was faced. I think we all would agree with that. Bravery was shown. I think we all would agree with that. And unfortunately American lives were lost.
So Mr. Chairman, I believe these bills would closely align the sacrifices made by these men and women with the compensation they deserve. As President Reagan said in his remarks to the Nation on the conflict in Lebanon and Grenada, and I quote: "They gave their lives in defense of our national security every bit as much as any man who ever died fighting in a war."
These sentiments apply to every man and woman who has stood in harm's way to protect our freedoms. It is time that we recognize that fact and extend pension benefits to those veterans who have exemplified the courage and bravery of service in our Armed Forces. Again, I thank you, Mr. Chairman. I thank the Members of the Subcommittee and I thank the full Committee, under Chairman Bob Filner's leadership for the excellent work each of you do for our Nation's veterans.
[The statement of Congressman Rahall appears in the Appendix.]
Mr. HALL. Thank you, Mr. Rahall. Mr. Fossella, you are now recognized for 5 minutes and your statement is also entered into the record.
Mr. FOSSELLA. Well, thank you, Mr. Chairman. And Mr. Rodriguez, Ms. Berkley, thank you for your attendance here. And rather than repeat, let me just echo what my colleague, Mr. Rahall, has said not only about this Committee but also the great sacrifice and service of our men and women in uniform. And let me talk specifically about the legislation I have introduced. For years, I joined the Staten Island veterans in a battle to establish a veterans cemetery in our borough. The closest veterans cemetery in the area is the Calverton National Cemetery in Long Island. But transportation demands have made it practically inaccessible for too many of the 28,000 veterans in my district. It can be a grueling 3- to 5-hour roundtrip commute, making traveling there terribly difficult, particularly for disabled and older veterans.
There are three primary obstacles preventing the establishment of a veterans' cemetery on Staten Island. First, the New York State law passed in the 1980s prohibits the State from funding a veterans cemetery. Currently, I, along with Staten Island's local representatives, are working on a legislative solution to fix that problem. Second, Staten Island lacks the necessary available acreage for a cemetery. As you might know, there is a minimum requirement of about 175 acres. And due to the land shortage, many local veterans have united around the idea of a mausoleum because it requires the least amount of land and is the most cost effective way to achieve their long-sought goal. Real estate prices are high, and real estate itself is limited.
Third, the Department of Veterans Affairs would call the threshold of 170,000 veterans living within a 75-mile area to necessitate the establishment of a national veterans cemetery. Due to the fact that Calverton on Long Island falls within the 75-mile radius and therefore is ineligible under current law. For an aging, often disabled veteran population, the 3- to 5-hour commute to Long Island is unreasonable, and simply does not serve the veteran population nor their families on Staten Island.
In addition, as I have mentioned, we have the 75-mile rule, 175 acres as well. As I mentioned earlier, many local veterans have come to agree the idea of a mausoleum instead of an actual cemetery is acceptable and appropriate. I believe that the threshold requirements used by the VA are a blunt instrument when applied to determining cemetery eligibility. To refine the process, I offered H.R. 2346, a bill which would improve the process by adding additional variables for the VA to consider when siting a national cemetery. The bill would direct the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to establish a process for determining whether geographic areas efficiently served by the veterans cemeteries located in the area. The process will take into account the following variables for each of the geographic areas: One, total number of veterans; two, the average distance residents must travel to reach the nearest national cemetery; three, the population density; four, the average amount of time it takes a resident to travel to the nearest national cemetery; and five, the availability of public transportation for purposes of traveling to the cemeteries.
And finally, the average amount of fees charged to an individual travelling on the major roads leading to the national cemeteries.
And this sort of encapsulates it all. As you might know, Mr. Chairman, being from New York, congestion and traffic is a problem getting from point A to point B. In addition, tolls and the Verrazano Bridge alone going on and off Staten Island right now round trip is $9, and is scheduled to rise to perhaps $10 or $11 roundtrip.
So there is significant costs and time constraints placed upon any veteran or family member wanting to visit the cemetery.
Finally, in the case of a geographic area in which sufficient land is not available for the establishment of a cemetery, we ask and allow the Secretary to consider establishing alternatives like a mausoleum. It is worth noting that the VA, as you mentioned, is currently conducting a study regarding its requirements for establishing a national veterans cemetery. A focus of the study is an examination of whether current thresholds are feasible and not overly simplistic in ensuring veteran access. The VA knows there is a problem, and I hope my legislation can help fix it.
In closing, Staten Island has one of the highest veterans populations in the State, yet it remains underserved, I believe, by a veterans cemetery. It is my hope that if adopted, perhaps with your support, the legislation would provide for a place of remembrance for so many of my constituents who deserve such a site closer to home.
Thank you very much for your time, to the committee and you, Mr. Chairman.
Mr. HALL. Thank you, Congressman.
[The statement of Congressman Fossella appears in the Appendix.]
Mr. HALL. If you have a minute to answer questions, both to Mr. Rahall and Mr. Fossella, what I will do, since I made an opening statement, is ask Mr. Rodriguez if he would like to go first.
Mr. RODRIGUEZ. Thank you very much.
Chairman Rahall, let me ask you, do you know the number you anticipate you might be looking at that would fall under the category that you specify? Do you have a rough number.
Mr. RAHALL. The number of individuals serving in the war?
Mr. RODRIGUEZ. That would fall under that category.
Mr. RAHALL. I am currently requesting that information from each branch of the military, and the DoD, in an effort to gather the records for the amount of medals that had been awarded on the first bill, the expeditionary medal. I don't have the numbers yet on the second bill, the pension benefits. Wait just a second. Let me see. I might have those.
Mr. RODRIGUEZ. I have been informed by the staff, I think—
Mr. RAHALL. The same response, Mr. Rodriguez. We have the requests in to DoD and we don't have those numbers returned yet.
Mr. RODRIGUEZ. I think it is definitely a good idea and just wanted to see in terms of how many we were referring to.
Congressman, on the cemeteries, let me also congratulate you for bringing that forward, because I know that right now the life expectancy—that doesn't sound too good for a cemetery—but the life expectancy of the existing cemeteries, even the ones we have now, are very low. By maybe creating additional ones, that might enhance their life expectancy.
I wanted to look at it because I have a district that spans 650 miles across west Texas and we don't have any cemeteries out there. There is no doubt that we don't have a population of 175,000 people. There is a need for maybe some smaller cemeteries in conjunction where the counties can participate in helping in those areas.
So I just want to congratulate you on bringing forth this effort here because there is no doubt that we need to look at different options versus just going into urban areas. Because basically, that is what this does, it just establishes cemeteries in urban areas despite the fact that I know you have an urban area that still allows options to look at different kinds of areas. I want to just thank you and congratulate you for that.
Mr. FOSSELLA. Thank you, Mr. Rodriguez. As I see it, there are some rigid rules that the VA has. I think what we all would like to get to is some degree of flexibility, whether it is in west Texas or in Staten Island, to recognize that there may be a veterans population that may be underserved.
Mr. RODRIGUEZ. For a cost. Later on, we have to be careful about setting specifics because a lot of people will say I qualify for one. We probably maybe need to look for some kind of process for determining some kind of assessment as to what is needed nationwide, so we get a feel as to what is more appropriate. Would that be okay to kind of look at a study that would look at the whole country as a whole.
Mr. FOSSELLA. I always believe that this should be an American model for determining and assessing the need. So I would be open to that as well.
Mr. RODRIGUEZ. Because I know that some of the local communities and counties would be willing to donate the property and those kinds of things to help in this process or in sharing the cost.
Mr. FOSSELLA. I would be happy to look at that.
Mr. RODRIGUEZ. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
Mr. FOSSELLA. Thank you.
Mr. HALL. Thank you, Mr. Rodriguez. And Ms. Berkley, would you like to ask some questions?
Ms. BERKLEY. Yes. Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman. First, I want to thank the two of you very much for being here. I appreciate it very much and support all three pieces of legislation. Chairman Rahall, the fact that veterans from Korea, Lebanon, Grenada, Panama have not been recognized and are not eligible for the veterans pension benefits I think is absurd. I am delighted that you have brought this to our attention. I have a question for you though, because the State of Nevada has no national veterans cemetery. We have two State cemeteries: one in Reno, Nevada, which services the northern part of our State; one in Boulder City, which services southern Nevada, primarily the Las Vegas-Henderson area. But my question to you is, I thought I heard a snippet where you said that State law prohibits you from having State cemeteries as well?
Mr. FOSSELLA. Yes. New York is—I don't know if it is exclusive but it is somewhat unique in the fact that it actually had a law passed in the 1980s, to prohibit the establishment of State cemeteries, similar to what you have in Nevada. And we have spent the last several years of trying to undo that, within understanding that there may not be a straight out Federal cemetery, but at least we would have the option that you have in Nevada to establish a State cemetery for veterans, and we are working on a legislative fix to try to undo that to allow that option.
Ms. BERKLEY. Well, I am very supportive of your legislation as well. I thank you both for coming in and spending time with us.
Mr. FOSSELLA. Thank you.
Mr. RAHALL. Thank you.
Mr. HALL. Thank you, Ms. Berkley. In a minute, we will give you a chance, if you would like, to make a statement about your legislation, H.R. 1273.
Ms. BERKLEY. I look forward to the opportunity.
Mr. HALL. And so do we. But first, I just have a couple of brief questions, Mr. Rahall. I am curious about the genesis of your legislative efforts on H.R. 1900 and H.R. 1901, how they came to pass. You seem to have identified something that maybe many of us thought about or many of us might have missed.
Mr. RAHALL. Thank you, Mr. Chairman. The bill came about based on resolutions introduced by the American Legion. They actually had a resolution containing almost the exact same language. They certainly have recognized the oversight that exists in our efforts in providing both of these pieces of legislation. I might add as well that the Congressional Budget Office has not scored these bills, so I cannot give you an estimate yet on what it might cost. But again, that is not a major, nor I think, even a contributing factor to a decision on this legislation.
Mr. HALL. I would agree with that. Since there hasn't been a declaration of war involved with many of our military activities since 1941. Since World War II, the last time we declared war, it has been some other instrument that has legislatively given the power to engage in military conflicts to the executive branch. Some might say we should go back to having a declaration of war so the entire country is involved in a full debate about the wisdom of the undertaking. But in the meanwhile, those who have served in all these conflicts that you cover in your legislation certainly deserve the same pension and the same benefits as veterans who served in prior wars.
Congressman Fossella, I just wanted to ask you, I am curious about the New York State law. What do you think the intent was behind that law? And would it need to be repealed?
Mr. FOSSELLA. It would be great to get a State law passed similar to many States, whether it is Nevada or many across the country. My understanding, if my recollection is correct, it was more of a financial situation that the State of New York was in. If I am not mistaken, they were looking for every way possible to save money, for lack of a better phrase. And I think it was rooted in that. I think it was misguided. But in the meantime, it has taken more than 20 years to try to undo.
Mr. HALL. And do you have a cost estimate or ballpark idea of the costs associated with either a cemetery or a mausoleum on Staten Island?
Mr. FOSSELLA. Well, it is a function, Mr. Chairman, of how big it would ultimately be. There are estimates of the mausoleum, anywhere from $20 million to $30 million to construct. But as you can imagine, to have vacant land for a cemetery is a little different than constructing a mausoleum up front, because that is more of a fixed cost, and therefore, I think it is an up front cost that not necessarily share it as just a cemetery would be. But there could be a partnership between the Federal and the State Government, whereby veterans would get compensation for being buried or interred at the mausoleum.
So it is, in large part, how big is the house and how much is the house going to cost. It would be a function of what the local veterans organizations would deem to be sufficient. There are some sketches, some renderings. But roughly the numbers have been thrown around of $20 million or $30 million.
Mr. HALL. Well, given the cost of real estate in any of the boroughs, Staten Island included, I would guess that you are probably at least competitive with, if not a lower final figure than a cemetery.
Mr. FOSSELLA. Well, it was very, very difficult. We had a task force created a few years ago to just search the island for land that would meet the Federal criteria. And with the exception of just the outlying areas of the Fresh Kills Landfill, there wasn't really anything which led to the veterans agreeing to a smaller parcel of property than the mausoleum, because I think if we did not have the mausoleum option, it would not be possible at all.
Mr. HALL. Was there any opposition from veterans to the idea of a mausoleum?
Mr. FOSSELLA. No. I asked the veterans organizations, every one of them on Staten Island, represented wonderfully by the flags behind you I see for the most part, to join together and come up and let them drive the process, let them come to an agreement as to what they could live with and support. And it is as a result of that that we are pushing for not just this legislation, but specifically for a mausoleum.
Mr. HALL. Thank you very much. Mr. Smith, do you have anything you would like to ask?
Mr. SMITH. Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Mr. Lamborn may have questions when he arrives or for the record.
Mr. HALL. Very good. We will make sure they are entered in the record as far as these two witnesses are concerned.
Congressman Rahall, Congressman Fossella, thank you again for your testimony, and you are now excused. I am sure you have a busy day yet ahead of you.
Mr. RAHALL. I am going back to my Committee where Mr. Lamborn is my Ranking Member right now.
Mr. FOSSELLA. Thank you.
Mr. HALL. We hear Mr. Lamborn is on his way. So we are looking forward to seeing him.
And now we will invite our second panel to the witness table. Mr. Carl Blake, National Legislative Director of Paralyzed Veterans of America; Mr. Eric Hilleman, Deputy Director of the National Legislative Service for the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW); Mr. Robert Fells, External Chief Operating Officer and General Counsel, International Cemetery and Cremation and Funeral Association; Mr. Raymond C. Kelley, Legislative Director for the American Veterans (AMVETS); and, Mr. Alec S. Petkoff, Assistant Director for Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation Commission for the American Legion.
Very good. Thank you all for staying with us and for your service, and your work and your patience.
Mr. Blake, I will recognize you for 5 minutes. Your statement is entered in the record already.
STATEMENTS OF CARL BLAKE, NATIONAL LEGISLATIVE DIRECTOR, PARALYZED VETERANS OF AMERICA; ERIC A. HILLEMAN, DEPUTY DIRECTOR, NATIONAL LEGISLATIVE SERVICE, VETERANS OF FOREIGN WARS OF THE UNITED STATES; ROBERT M. FELLS, EXTERNAL CHIEF OPERATING OFFICER AND GENERAL COUNSEL, INTERNATIONAL CEMETERY, CREMATION AND FUNERAL ASSOCIATION; RAYMOND C. KELLEY, LEGISLATIVE DIRECTOR, AMERICAN VETERANS (AMVETS); AND ALEC S. PETKOFF, ASSISTANT DIRECTOR, VETERANS AFFAIRS AND REHABILITATION COMMISSION, AMERICAN LEGION
Mr. BLAKE. Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Mr. Chairman, Members of the Subcommittee, on behalf of Paralyzed Veterans of America, I would like to thank you for the opportunity to be here today to testify on this important legislation. PVA generally supports all of the legislation being considered here today. With this in mind, I will limit my comments to only a couple of the bills on the agenda. H.R. 1900 will extend eligibility for pension benefits from the VA to veterans who receive an expeditionary medal during a period of military service other than a period of war. Likewise, H.R. 1901 will expend eligibility for pension benefits for veterans that served in the military during specified periods of military engagement.
Expeditionary medals were awarded to a servicemember who participated in or was in support of one of the many operations of the U.S. military. Operations such as the invasion of Grenada in 1983 or the invasion of Panama in 1989 and many other special operations missions involved performance of duties that sometimes resulted in serious injury or loss of life.
However, these operations were not a declared period of war. PVA supports the extension of benefits as defined in H.R. 1900 and 1901. However, we would like to see these pension benefits extended to all active military that served during those periods, not just those individuals who served in the specific theater. The expeditionary medal was awarded to participants of a military operation but all military personnel may have been called upon to serve during these critical periods. We feel that all members of the military serving during one of those periods should receive this pension if they meet the other qualifications of the benefit.
PVA supports H.R. 2697. This legislation will complement legislation enacted during the 109th Congress. At that time the specially adapted housing grant was made available to servicemembers that were severely injured and still in the military so that they might begin taking steps to modify their homes even before being discharged. This legislation will allow servicemembers awaiting discharged to be eligible for mortgage life insurance. This provision is perfectly reasonable, as these men and women will be eligible for the benefit once they are a veteran anyway.
Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee, I would like to, once again, thank you for the opportunity to testify, and I would be happy to answer any questions that you might have.
Mr. HALL. Thank you very much, Mr. Blake.
[The statement of Mr. Blake appears in the Appendix.]
Mr. HALL. Now we will recognize Mr. Hilleman for 5 minutes.
Mr. HILLEMAN. Thank you Chairman Hall, Congressman Rodriguez, Congresswoman Berkley. Thank you for today's hearing. And thank you for allowing the Veterans of Foreign Wars to present our views on the legislation pending today. Today it is my distinct pleasure to be accompanied by my father, Edward A. Hilleman. He taught me about service to community and to Nation. He is a Vietnam veteran, having served two tours as a Marine in Chu Lai. He received an honorable discharge in 1968 and returned to St. Louis, Missouri, joining our family business, a local funeral home. For nearly 40 years, he has been active in organizations such as the VFW and the American Legion. Through the family business, he has seen the rising cost of medical expenses and funerals take their toll on families.
The benefit bills we are discussing today are a small cost toward the dignity and the memory of those who have sacrificed so much for our Nation. The VFW's views on the pending legislation are as follows: We support H.R. 674. This bill would repeal the sunset date for the Advisory Committee on Minority Veterans scheduled for December 31 of 2009. We support H.R. 1273, a restoration of plot allowance eligibility for veterans. This bill allows for $300 plot allowance for service-connected disabled veterans or period war veterans. It grants the authority to the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to reimbursed deceased veterans families for nongovernment headstone marker, or in lieu of furnishing a government marker. The VFW fully supports H.R. 1900, which extends the eligibility for veterans pension benefits to veterans who receive an expeditionary medal for a period of service other than a period of war. This law recognizes the change in use of the military in past and future conflicts, such as our Nation's involvement in Somalia from 1992 to 1993, Bosnia from 1992 to 2002, and current operations in the Horn of Africa.
Under current law, these servicemembers and their families do not receive benefits that aid families through great periods of stress. The VFW supports H.R. 1901. This bill would extend the eligibility for pension benefits under the laws administered by the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to servicemembers that have risked life and limb in the Korean Peninsula, Lebanon and Grenada.
The next bill, H.R. 2346, would direct the VA Secretary to establish a process for determining whether a geographic area is sufficiently served by the national cemeteries located in the geographic area. The work envisioned under, H.R. 2346, is accomplished by the National Cemetery Administration. Under Public Law 106-117 and Public Law 108-109, the NCA is required to report annually to Congress for establishment of additional cemeteries.
A strategic plan is formulated, serving areas determined for appropriate cemeteries. The site selection process takes into account population centers and travel distances. It weighs the views of State and local veterans organizations and solicits other information and views that the Secretary considers are knowledgeable in these matters. We believe the current process sufficiently addresses the needs of veterans and their families. And as such, we view this legislation as duplicative of the efforts already in place by the National Cemetery Administration. We support H.R. 2696 Veterans' Dignified Burial Assistance Act of 2007. This bill increases the plot allowance to $400. As a coauthor of the Independent Budget (IB), we have strongly advocated increasing the burial plot allowance. We believe moving the amount closer to the IB recommendations of $745 would better serve veterans and their families to settle the affairs of a departed loved one.
This legislation also includes a provision to abolish grant filing deadlines for veterans State cemeteries. The VFW has no position on this provision of this proposed legislation. The VFW supports H.R. 2697, legislation to expand eligibility for veterans mortgage life insurance to include members of the armed services receiving specialty adapted housing assistance from VA.
Mr. Chairman, this concludes my testimony. I look forward to any questions from the Subcommittee. Thank you.
[The statement of Mr. Hilleman appears in the Appendix.]
Mr. HALL. Thank you very much, Mr. Hilleman. Now the Chair will recognize Mr. Fells for 5 minutes. Once again, your statement is already in the record. So feel free to adapt it as you wish.
Mr. FELLS. Thank you very much, Chairman Hall, Members of the Subcommittee. We appreciate your invitation to have us here today. And I will just summarize. I am not going to read my printed statement, just make a few points. First of all, I really would like to commend and applaud Congresswoman Berkley on her leadership on H.R. 1273. I hate to become autobiographical, but this issue goes back with both my association, even myself for so many years. My association was actually instrumental back in 1973 when the National Cemeteries Act was being debated here in Congress in advocating the plot allowance be added because we knew there was were so many veterans and their families that already had burial spaces in private or religious cemeteries and that is where they wanted to be buried. We felt the choice should be up to the veterans if they wanted to opt for burial in national cemeteries or State veterans cemeteries, fine. But if they would prefer interment for personal or ethnic or religious reasons in private and religious cemeteries, they should also get a certain modicum of burial benefits as well.
Later, as you know, the marker allowance was enacted for many people who preferred to purchase their own style and type of monument or marker other than the government issued marker. They wouldn't really get anymore than anyone else because the allowance was based on the government's wholesale cost of providing the VA markers, minus, in fact, an administrative fee. When it ended around 1990, it was only up to $88. But it helped. It helped a lot of people. In some cases, families already had a monument, but there were costs involved with the last dates and things like putting the deceased's name on the marker.
So the marker allowance was also very helpful in facilitating these. I remember I was here in this room, in 1990, when the hearing was held to curtail the plot allowance from the wartime veterans and to totally eliminate the marker allowance. And the individuals who sat up where you are sitting today said, we have to do this to help balance the Federal budget. I don't think anyone believed that then. And today it looks even more preposterous.
So I will just conclude by saying that the thing to remember about H.R. 1273, all the bills here today are fine and ought to be acted upon favorably. But H.R. 1273 is unique in that it is not attempting to create or expand any new benefits. It is attempting to restore two benefits that never should have been taken away from veterans, particularly the veterans serving during times of war, never should have been taken away in the first place. So we would urge you to act very favorably on this. Thanks very much, and I will be happy to answer any questions.
Mr. HALL. Thank you, Mr. Fells.
[The statement of Mr. Fells appears in the Appendix.]
Mr. HALL. The Chair will now recognize Mr. Kelley for 5 minutes.
Mr. KELLEY. Mr. Chairman, Ranking Member, Members of the Subcommittee, thank you for providing AMVETS the opportunity to testify regarding pending legislation on minority veterans, memorial affairs and disability pension benefits. Over the past 12 years, the Advisory Committee on Minority Veterans, with their unique insight, has provided timely accurate information and recommendations on potential barriers which are unintentionally in place, often causing minority veterans a lower quality of care. Although these barriers are not limited to minorities, the Advisory Committee's perspective provides an ability to identify the root of the problem and submit recommendations, which often develop into legislative proposals and inevitably helps all veterans. AMVETS wholly supports H.R. 674's repeal of the sunset provision, maintaining the Advisory Committee on Minority Veterans.
Mr. Chairman, it should be at the root of our Nation's conscience to honor those servicemembers who are willing to stand in harm's way at our government's request. And the highest request we can pay is to honor the lives of our veterans after they have passed away. H.R. 1273, H.R. 2696 and H.R. 2346 promote this honor as well as offset the cost incurred by the families when the loved one passes on. AMVETS supports H.R. 1273 in restoring veterans plot allowance eligibility and headstone and marker allowance, but would encourage an amendment to include eligible veterans, not just veterans who served during wartime. AMVETS also supports an increase in burial assistance for $300 to $400. However, Mr. Chairman, the amount should be increased to $745. This increased amount would make current payments proportionally equal to the amount paid when the benefit was initially provided in 1973. AMVETS wholly supports H.R. 2346, as it assists VA in meeting the spirit of its goal of providing 85 percent of veterans with burial options within 75 miles of their residences. AMVETS supports H.R. 1900 and H.R. 1901, as they update and clarify veterans who are eligible for pension benefits. In the same light, Mr. Chairman, AMVETS supports H.R. 2697.
However, due to Title 38's definition of veteran, administrative amendments may need to be enacted to include members of the Armed Forces throughout Chapter 21, Title 38, to clarify servicemembers' eligibility for adaptive housing assistance, which this resolution will ensure. Mr. Chairman, this concludes my testimony.
[The statement of Mr. Kelley appears in the Appendix.]
Mr. HALL. Thank you, Mr. Kelley. I think we are all getting into the spirit of this week by keeping our testimony short. The green light stays on. And Mr. Petkoff, now you are recognized for 5 minutes. Your statement is in the written record.
Mr. PETKOFF. Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Members of the Subcommittee, I appreciate the opportunity to be able to present the American Legion's views on this important pending legislation. The American Legion gives its full support to H.R. 674, which will repeal the provision of the law requiring termination of the Advisory Committee on Minority Veterans, H.R. 1273, which restores plot allowance eligibility for veterans of any war and restores the headstone or marker allowance; and H.R. 2697, which addresses the expansion of the veterans mortgage life insurance.
Whether it be transitioning out of the military or mourning a loved one, these bills impact veterans and their families at their most vulnerable moments. As long as there is the military, and as long as we have minority populations who are serving who have particular needs and sensitivities, we will always need the Advisory Committee on Minority Veterans. The plot allowance and headstone or marker allowance that was once for all veterans who served in the time of war should be restored. And if a servicemember has been awarded a grant for the VA benefit of especially adaptive housing, then it makes sense that they should also be eligible for the veterans mortgage life insurance.
Now the American Legion does support the intent of H.R. 1901, which extends eligibility for pension benefits to veterans who served during certain periods of time and specified locations. With the exception of Vietnam for the period of February 28, 1961, to August 4, 1964, wartime service was wartime service, and location was not an issue. The inclusion of location requirements seems overly restrictive and contrary to spirit and intent of nonservice connected pension benefits. Eligibility for benefits for all other periods require one day of active duty during a time of war with no location requirements. American Legion recommends removing location requirements from the bill. H.R. 2346, the American Legion supports the intent of that bill as well, which establishes process for determining whether geographic areas sufficiently served by the national cemeteries located in geographic area. While the American Legion fully supports the intent of the bill, it does have some concern about the addition of mausoleums to VA's national cemeteries. The main concerns being how would they conform to the national shrine commitment?
And more importantly, is the idea what most veterans want and approve of. And the American Legion recommends that, of course, that continues to be further studied. And finally, H.R. 2696, the Veterans' Dignified Burial Assistance Act of 2007, while some increase to the burial plot allowance is better than no increase, the suggested amounts offer only a small improvement to the current costs involved in paying for a funeral. The American Legion recommends that an increase that better reflects the current costs of a funeral be instated. The American Legion also supports the intent of section 2(b), which would repeal the time limitation for filing for that reimbursement. Thank you for allowing the American Legion to present its views on the testimony. And I would be happy to try to answer any questions the committee may have.
Mr. HALL. Thank you very much, Mr. Petkoff.
[The statement of Mr. Petkoff appears in the Appendix.]
Mr. HALL. Before we go to questions, I would like to turn to Representative Berkley and ask her if she would tell us about H.R. 1273.
Ms. BERKLEY. Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I appreciate that. I want to thank you and the Subcommittee for considering this plot and marker allowance restoration bill today. I also want to thank Bob Fells. This is not a mutual admiration society, but I appreciated your kind words. I appreciate the assistance you have given me in the last few years on this important legislation.
As veterans from previous wars age and countless national heroes continue to serve our country, paying for the burial expenses of veterans is a serious concern for many families. We are in the position today to ease the burden on veterans' families during this most difficult time when they are burying a loved one. When I first ran for Congress back in 1998, when I started meeting with veterans' families just to learn about the issues, I was astounded when one family after another brought up the fact that the cost of burying their loved one, their veteran, was so difficult for them and such a terrible challenge. I vowed back then, 10 years ago in 1997, that I would try to do something about it. H.R. 1273 would expand the veterans plot allowance eligibility and reinstate the headstone marker allowance for use in private and religious cemeteries.
In 1990, Congress curtailed the eligibility of wartime veterans to receive the plot allowance unless they were receiving VA compensation or pension benefits or died of service-connected injuries. Congress also eliminated the marker allowance which provided a cash reimbursement to veterans and their families who preferred to purchase their own marker or headstone for placement in a private cemetery. I can only imagine how you felt sitting here in 1990 and watching this unfold before your eyes.
My bill would restore the $300 plot allowance for burial in a private or religious ceremony to a veteran of any war regardless of whether or not they were receiving veterans benefits. It would also provide a cost-based reimbursement for a headstone or marker to veterans and their families who prefer to purchase their own for placement in a private ceremony. As we have heard from our veterans service organizations (VSO) representatives, they support the bill. They also believe that the plot allowance should be increased beyond the $300 amount. Unfortunately, my timing wasn't perfect, but I have reintroduced legislation that does exactly this.
While I know Mr. Lamborn's legislation calls for going from $300 to $400, I quite agree with you, that isn't where we need to be. We need to go back to the original intent of the legislation and keep up with the current costs. That $300 should be $745. That is in a companion piece of legislation, and when we move towards the floor, I would like to incorporate the two pieces of legislation. This should not pass with the $300 allowance. It has got to be the $745.
I introduced it this morning, as a matter of fact. So we can start moving that along as well. While I was in the cloakroom in the last series of votes, there was a flash on the television saying that we are now offering a $20,000 signing bonus for people that are willing to go to Iraq immediately.
Certainly, if we can afford a $20,000 signing bonus to get people into the theater of war, for those that do not return from the theater of war alive, we can find $745 to take care of their burial needs. I urge all of my colleagues to not only support these pieces of legislation but to cosponsor these pieces of legislation. We have had a difficult time getting cosponsors. I think we ought to all be signing onto each other's bills. I want to thank all of you for being here. I appreciated your testimony and I yield back whatever time I have left.
Mr. HALL. Thank you, Ms. Berkley. We are now happy to have been joined by Ranking Member Mr. Lamborn, who I will now recognize for his opening statement.
Mr. LAMBORN. Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I am sorry I couldn't be here earlier because I was finishing another committee hearing going on at the same time. In fact, I left that one early. But thank you for holding this hearing, and in my July 10th letter to you, asking for this hearing, I asked also that we have a hearing on H.R. 3047, the "Veterans Claims Processing Innovation Act of 2007," which is developing broad bipartisan support. This bill will bring VA's compensation and pension system into the 21st Century.
By increasing accountability and leveraging technology at the Veterans Benefits Administration, this bill would improve the accuracy and speed of benefits claims. And I recommend it to the attention to my colleagues. While I was disappointed that testimony on H.R. 3047 will not be heard today, I am encouraged by your promise, Mr. Chairman, to hold another hearing on this bill when Congress comes back in September. It would go without saying that I also anticipate the opportunity to review your own legislation to reduce the backlog once that is offered.
This afternoon, we are in the middle of considering several pieces of legislation, all of which are of interest and potential value. Two of these bills bear my name, H.R. 2696 and H.R. 2697. A third, H.R. 2346, introduced by Mr. Fossella directly, addresses how we determine the location of a national cemetery and it is most timely. I look forward to working with Mr. Fossella on H.R. 2346. This is an important bill that will help provide veterans and their families with greater access to national cemeteries.
And I believe it will help the VA create an even better and more accurate and beneficial selection process. The two bills I introduced support similar bills introduced by Senator Larry Craig of Idaho over in the Senate. H.R. 2696, the "Veterans' Dignified Burial Assistance Act of 2007," which has been mentioned earlier will increase the burial and plot allowance for veterans' burial in a private cemetery from $300 to $400. That is an issue that we are looking at from a couple of different angles. The bill also repealed the current time limitation for State reimbursement for interment costs by VA. From time to time, a State locates the remains of veterans who were not interred. When States inter these veterans, they cannot be reimbursed by VA because of the time limit on reimbursement costs, and this bill would repeal that limitation. The last provision of the bill would authorize the VA Secretary to make additional grants to States for improving and expanding States veterans cemeteries.
States would have to submit an application to the Secretary and could receive up to $5 million. H.R. 2697 would extend eligibility for veterans mortgage life insurance or VMLI to members of the Armed Forces. VMLI is a special type of life insurance that is only available to veterans who qualify for specially adapted housing grants. Many of our Nation's injured active-duty servicemembers will eventually qualify for VMLI and would benefit by having this eligibility. These are just three of the bills before us today. I look forward to the remainder of the testimony and our discussion of the other legislation before us today. My thanks to my colleagues and the witnesses for their testimony. And Mr. Chairman, I yield back.
[The statement of Congressman Lamborn appears in the Appendix.]
Mr. HALL. Thank you, Mr. Lamborn. Let me just ask a couple of quick questions myself. Mr. Blake, in your testimony, you stated that you would like to see pension benefits that would be provided under H.R. 1900 extended to all active military that served during the given periods, not just in the specific year. Do you know approximately how many veterans this would be?