Paralyzed Veterans of America
Chairman Runyan, Ranking Member Titus, and members of the Subcommittee, Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA) would like to thank you for the opportunity to offer our views on pending legislation before the Subcommittee.
H.R. 2018, the “Honor Those Who Severed Act of 2013”
PVA supports H.R. 2018, the “Honor Those Who Served Act of 2013.” This legislation expands the list of persons who are eligible to request headstones or markers furnished by the Secretary of Veterans Affairs (VA) upon the death of a veteran.
PVA cautiously supports the intent of H.R. 2088, a bill to direct the Secretary to carry out a pilot program to establish claims adjudication centers of excellence. While we recognize that the concept of this proposal is meant to improve claims adjudication work across the Veterans Benefits Administration, we have concerns about the underlying details of the legislation and the potential unintended consequences that may occur.
In many ways, PVA sees this legislation as a double-edged sword. We see tremendous advantages in the opportunities veterans service organizations (VSO) could have in sharing our expertise and knowledge of certain illnesses helping to train VA staff. The in-depth experience of VSO service officers with regards to the details of specific illnesses and injuries and our experience in preparing claims for adjudication, for example with spinal cord injury or disorder (SCI/D) and related claims in the case of PVA members, may lead to greater accuracy on the part of less experienced VA staff.
However, PVA is very concerned about regionalizing certain types of claims as this has often not proven very efficient. In these cases, some VA Regional Offices (VARO) won't get exposed to complex claims under this system. In the long run, this erodes the knowledge base of the staff as a whole. It may also lead to a single point of failure if a VARO handling a specific illness is disrupted by a natural or manmade disaster such as Hurricane Katrina, the 9/11 attack or San Francisco earthquake.
H.R. 2119, the “Veterans Access to Speedy Review Act”
PVA supports H.R. 2119, the “Veterans Access to Speedy Review Act.” As long as there is the ability to request an in-person hearing that the Board would be required to honor, we believe this will benefit both the claimant and the Board. At veteran service organization forums held by the Board, there has been an ongoing emphasis on holding video conferences whenever possible to reduce time lost for no-shows. Additionally, the grant rate for video versus in-person hearings is the same. In fact, PVA has encouraged service officers to hold video conference hearings and the vast majority of PVA hearings are now held via video conference.
Our only concern with the legislation is Section 2 regarding the appellant requesting a different location which indicates “If so requested, the Board may [emphasis added] grant such request…” This language may too broadly allow the Board to disallow the appellant’s request. In the case of older veterans, they may feel uncomfortable with video conferencing, believing it is less valid. The Board should always defer to the veteran when determining the best course of action in the appeals process.
H.R. 2529, the “Veterans Spouses Equal Treatment Act”
PVA has no position on H.R. 2529, the “Veterans Spouses Equal Treatment Act.”
PVA supports H.R. 3876 to expand the eligibility for a medallion furnished by the Secretary to signify the veteran status of a deceased individual. By removing any limitation due to date of death of a veteran, all those who served will be eligible for the recognition they earned through their service.
H.R. 3876, the “Burial with Dignity for Heroes Act of 2014”
PVA supports H.R. 3876, the “Burial with Dignity for Heroes Act of 2014.” Every veteran deserves the respect and dignity of a proper burial. Our only concern is with the cost of the program. It is critical that additional appropriations are identified to provide this earned benefit for those who served to avoid reducing services for other equally deserving veterans.
H.R. 4095, the “Veterans’ Compensation Cost-of-Living Adjustment Act of 2014”
PVA fully supports H.R. 4095, the “Veterans’ Compensation Cost-of-Living Adjustment Act of 2014,” that would increase, effective as of December 1, 2014, the rates of compensation for veterans with service-connected disabilities and the rates of dependency and indemnity compensation (DIC) for the survivors of certain disabled veterans. This would include increases in wartime disability compensation, additional compensation for dependents, clothing allowance, and dependency and indemnity compensation for children.
However, consistent with our position in the past, PVA cannot support the rounding down of increases in compensation. While our economy continues to struggle, veterans’ personal finances have been affected by rising costs of essential necessities to live from day to day and maintain a certain standard of living. Many veterans and their families depend on their compensation. While this may be a small amount, any reduction can have a critical impact, especially when compounded over time, on low income veterans.
PVA generally supports H.R. 4102 to clarify that the estate of a deceased veteran may receive certain accrued benefits upon the death of the veteran. PVA believes that benefits which would have been due to a veteran while they were alive are owed to the veteran or to their estate.
However, PVA has concerns about singling out the estate of Shelton Hickerson for relief. While we understand the tragedy of Mr. Hickerson receiving his award on the date of his death, other veterans’ families may have faced similar instances since the date of Mr. Hickerson’s award who will not receive the same consideration. This issue is a simple matter of fairness. If the legislation is to be in any way retroactive, it should apply to the estates of all veterans who have died since the specified date.
PVA does not support H.R. 4141 to authorize the Secretary to enter into enhanced-use leases for excess property of the National Cemetery Administration that is unsuitable for burial purposes. PVA does not see the purpose of this legislation and is not aware of significant issues for the disposition of excess property beyond what is already covered by Section 2407 of Title 38 as it applies to monuments. Additionally, draft legislation currently pending before the Health Subcommittee authorizing medical facility projects for FY 2014 can address issues for uses such as prayer gardens or rose parks.
H.R. 4191, the “Quicker Veterans Benefits Delivery Act”
PVA supports H.R. 4191, the “Quicker Veterans Benefits Delivery Act.” PVA has consistently recommended that VA accept valid medical evidence from non-Department medical professionals. The continuing actions of VA to require Department medical examinations does nothing to further efforts to reduce the claims backlog and may actually cause the backlog to increase.
Mr. Chairman, we would like to thank you once again for allowing us to address these important issues. We continue to look to VA to improve their services to veterans, but must continually caution VA that changes should provide greater care and services to veterans, and not simply increase efficiencies of processes. This is particularly true when considering those with catastrophic disabilities and complex claims.
PVA would be pleased to take any questions for the record.
Information Required by Rule XI 2(g)(4) of the House of Representatives
Pursuant to Rule XI 2(g)(4) of the House of Representatives, the following information is provided regarding federal grants and contracts.
Fiscal Year 2013
National Council on Disability — Contract for Services — $35,000.
Fiscal Year 2012
No federal grants or contracts received.
Fiscal Year 2011
Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, administered by the Legal Services Corporation — National Veterans Legal Services Program— $262,787.