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Heather L. Ansley, Esq., MSW, Director of Veterans Policy, VetsFirst, a Program of United Spinal Association

Chairwoman Buerkle, Ranking Member Michaud, and other distinguished members of the subcommittee, thank you for the opportunity to submit written testimony regarding VetsFirst’s views on the Veterans Dog Training Therapy Act (H.R. 198) and the Veterans Equal Treatment for Service Dogs Act (H.R. 1154).

VetsFirst represents the culmination of 60 years of service to veterans and their families. United Spinal Association, through its veterans service program, VetsFirst, maintains a nationwide network of veterans service officers who provide representation for veterans, their dependents and survivors in their pursuit of Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) benefits and health care before the VA and in the federal courts. Today, United Spinal Association is not only a VA-recognized national veterans service organization, but is also a leader in advocacy for all people with disabilities.

Service animals provide multi-faceted assistance to people with disabilities. Specifically, service animals promote community integration. In addition to performing specific tasks such as pulling a wheel chair or opening a door, these same service animals can also help to break down barriers between people with disabilities and society. In addition to increased social interaction, many people with disabilities also report experiencing a greater sense of independence.

For many years, Congress has recognized the benefits that service animals provide for veterans with disabilities. Specifically, Congress has authorized VA to provide guide dogs for veterans with visual impairments. In 2002, Congress expanded the authority to include service dogs for veterans with hearing and mobility impairments. Most recently, Congress further expanded VA’s authority to include service dogs for veterans who have mental health concerns.

VetsFirst is pleased to lend our support to legislation that we believe will further promote and facilitate the use of service animals by veterans with disabilities.

The Veterans Dog Training Therapy Act (H.R. 198)

VetsFirst strongly supports the Veterans Dog Training Therapy Act (H.R. 198) and the substitute amendment that will be submitted at committee markup. The proposed amendment to this legislation would ensure that accredited service dog agencies and trainers will provide appropriate training and consultation with VA to provide opportunities for veterans with mental health concerns to train service dogs for fellow veterans with disabilities.

We support efforts to ensure that properly trained service animals are available to veterans who can benefit from their assistance. The Veterans Dog Training Therapy Act provides a unique opportunity to benefit not only veterans seeking the assistance of a service dog but also provides veterans with post-deployment mental health concerns or post-traumatic stress disorder the opportunity to benefit from training these dogs. The dual nature of this approach will assist a wide range of veterans.

VetsFirst also believes that requiring VA to work in conjunction with accredited service dog agencies and trainers will benefit all participating veterans. Specifically, veterans assisting with training will be required to follow a structured process to ensure that the service dog is appropriately trained. As a result, veterans receiving these service dogs will be assured that the dogs are properly trained and able to assist them. Furthermore, the skills learned by the veteran trainers could be helpful in allowing them to successfully pursue a career in the service animal field.

Consequently, VetsFirst urges passage of the Veterans Dog Training Therapy Act. We understand that Congressman Grimm has identified possible offset funding for this important legislation.

The Veterans Equal Treatment for Service Dogs Act (H.R. 1154)

VetsFirst, strongly supports the Veterans Equal Treatment for Service (VETS) Dogs Act (H.R. 1154). This legislation would ensure that all veterans with disabilities who use service dogs are able to access VA facilities.

VA regulation, 38 C.F.R. § 1.218(a)(11), which applies to “all property under the charge and control of VA,” states that, “Dogs and other animals, except seeing-eye dogs, shall not be brought upon property except as authorized by the head of the facility or designee.” Exempting guide dogs but not service dogs from VA property leads to unequal protection for veterans and people with disabilities. In addition, allowing the use of service dogs to vary by VA facility has resulted in veterans encountering different access policies based on the discretion of the individual facility directors.

The VETS Dogs Act, which has wide bipartisan support, specifically states that the VA Secretary may not prohibit the use of service dogs in VA facilities or on VA property.

Immediately prior to the introduction of this legislation, the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) issued VHA Directive 2011-013 titled, “Guide Dogs and Service Dogs on VHA Property.” If properly implemented and maintained, the directive could address past access difficulties. Although VetsFirst acknowledges the actions of VA in issuing the directive, we believe that the VETS Dogs Act must be passed to ensure that veterans with disabilities who use service dogs have the assurance of equal access to VA facilities.

Thus, we urge swift passage of the VETS Dogs Act to specifically mandate access to VA services and facilities for all veterans with disabilities who use service dogs.

Thank you for the opportunity to submit written testimony concerning VetsFirst’s views on H.R. 198 and H.R. 1154. VetsFirst believes that the ability to use service animals is a critical option for many people with disabilities. Together, H.R. 198 and H.R. 1154 provide the legislative authority to ensure that veterans are able to more fully benefit from service dogs.

We appreciate your leadership on behalf of our nation’s veterans with disabilities. VetsFirst stands ready to work in partnership to ensure that all veterans are able to reintegrate in to their communities and remain valued, contributing members of society.

Information Required by Clause 2(g) of Rule XI of the House of Representatives

Written testimony submitted by Heather L. Ansley, Director of Veterans Policy; VetsFirst, a program of United Spinal Association; 1660 L Street, NW, Suite 504; Washington, D.C. 20036. (202) 556-2076, ext. 7702.

This testimony is being submitted on behalf of VetsFirst, a program of United Spinal Association.

United Spinal Association has not received any federal contracts or grants, other than the routine use of office space and associated resources in VA Regional Offices for Veterans Service Officers, in the current or previous two fiscal years.