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Mr. Robert M. Fells

Mr. Robert M. Fells, International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association, General Counsel and External Chief Operating Officer

Chairman Hall and Members of the Subcommittee:

We appreciate your invitation to testify today regarding H.R. 1273 and related bills to improve and enhance veterans’ burial benefits. The International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association represents over 7,200 members including non-profit, for-profit, religious and municipal cemeteries, as well as funeral homes, crematories and related businesses primarily in the United States and in 24 foreign countries,  Founded in 1887, the ICCFA promotes open competition, consumer choices, and prearrangement.  I have served the Association since 1983 as general counsel, and also as External Chief Operating Officer since 2001.

The ICCFA applauds the efforts of Congresswoman Shelley Berkley and appreciates her leadership in sponsoring H.R 1273, a bill to restore the veterans plot allowance eligibility and the headstone/marker allowance for use in private and religious cemeteries. These two cost-effective burial benefits were popular for many years with veterans and their families who preferred interment in non-government cemeteries for personal, ethnic or religious reasons. In 1990, Congress suddenly curtailed the eligibility of wartime veterans to receive the plot allowance unless they were receiving VA compensation, pension benefits, or died of service-connected injuries. At the same time, Congress abolished the marker allowance that provided a cash reimbursement, based on the government's wholesale costs of furnishing markers, to veterans and their families who preferred to purchase their own marker or headstone for placement in a private cemetery.

When the VA’s National Cemetery Administration was formally organized in 1973 as the result of Public Law 93-43, Congress implicitly acknowledged that national cemeteries did not operate in a vacuum, but complemented other forms of burial that used resources in private, religious, and municipal cemeteries.  The ICCFA was instrumental in having included in that law a provision that authorized a plot allowance (then $150) to benefit the majority of veterans and their families who preferred interment in non-government cemeteries. This plot allowance was also viewed as a means to offset demands on national cemeteries and as a recognition of the personal, religious, and ethnic preferences of veterans. Subsequent legislation established additional forms of burial assistance, such as the marker allowance, to further avoid a forced reliance on national cemeteries.

Since the November 1990 repeal of the marker allowance and the curtailment of the plot allowance, we believe that the VA eligibility requirements to receive forms of burial benefits has been inconsistent. The general availability of national cemetery interment to virtually all veterans and their immediate families contrasts sharply with the restricted benefits for veterans who wish to be buried in private cemeteries. In that sense, Congress has legislated against wartime veterans by cutting burial benefits to this group. The ICCFA has estimated that as many as 70 percent of the veterans previously entitled to burial benefits in non-government cemeteries were made ineligible through Congressional actions in 1990 and earlier.

For example, in October, 1981, P.L. 97-35 was enacted that disqualified wartime veterans from receiving the non-service connected basic burial allowance (then $300) in the absence of additional criteria. In November 1990, as mentioned above, Congress again discriminated against wartime veterans by restricting the plot allowance and eliminating the marker allowance. These modest, one-time payments not only reflected the wishes of veterans but would also result in long-term cost savings when compared to expense of maintaining graves in the national cemeteries in perpetuity.  However, we feel that these factors were not given sufficient regard at the time.

Hence, the importance of H.R 1273, a bill that does not create new burial benefits, but restores the veterans plot allowance eligibility and the headstone/marker allowance for use in private and religious cemeteries, benefits which never should have been eliminated.

In conclusion, we appreciate your allowing us to testify today and we urge you to act favorably on H.R. 1273. I would be happy to answer any questions you may have.  Thank you.