Chairwoman Herseth Sandlin, Ranking Member Boozman, members of the Subcommittee, Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA) would like to thank you for the opportunity to testify today on the various pending legislation. We appreciate the Subcommittee’s focus on such a broad range of issues.
H.R. 3298, the “21st Century Servicemembers Protection Act”
PVA supports H.R. 3298, the “21st Century Servicemembers Protection Act”. This bill is a necessary compliment to other legislation previously passed that aids service members with their transfer or deployment when the departure was not planned. This will allow the servicemember to terminate a contract without penalty when the individual is required to relocate. Service contracts entail a specific number of days, months, or years to protect both the provider of the service and the user. When a man or woman is serving in a branch of the military, standard contracts that are written for, and used in the civilian world must grant this leeway with a time commitment. Those that have chosen to serve in the military should not be penalized by a contract when called to serve this nation.
H.R. 3393, the “Reservist Access to Justice Act of 2007”
PVA supports H.R. 3393, the Reservist Access to Justice Act of 2007. This bill reinforces the intent of Congress when they passed improvements to the Uniformed Service Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA) in 2004. It is unthinkable that some employers have spent large amounts of money in the legal system to prevent a Reservist or National Guardsman from returning to his or her job after performing their service in the armed forces. H.R. 3393 would give reservists the right to bring their case in state or U.S. district court. It would make injunctive relief mandatory and provide for punitive damages in the worst cases of discrimination.
H.R. 3467, the “Second Chance for America’s Veterans Act”
PVA supports H.R. 3467, the “Second Chance for American’s Veterans Act”. This will provide funding for the Incarcerated Veterans Transitional Program (IVTP) for fiscal years 2008 through 2011. It will expand the program allowing more veterans to participate during these years. The success of the program has been documented with the three-year pilot program that ended in 2007. It has proven to be extremely effective in reducing the recidivism of veterans, improving the quality of life for the veterans, and saving the taxpayer the estimated $33,600 per year cost for incarceration. This program could help turn these men and women that served their nation honorably into upstanding citizens once again.
PVA supports H.R. 3646, a bill that requests a joint study of employment opportunities for veterans. With more that 220,000 active duty military personnel leaving the military each year, every state will have thousands of veterans looking for employment. The 110th Congress has introduced several new bills that are intended to help these new veterans as they seek training, education, or employment.
H.R. 3646 can be another tool for these men and women as they plan their transition from military to civilian life. This bill calls for the Department of Labor and the Department of Veterans Affairs to conduct a study to locate employment opportunities and the fields of employment for which the greatest need for employees exists. This would indicate opportunities by zip codes or regions of a state. The Department of Labor has most of this information in their data base.
By posting this information on the VA's web site, the veteran will be able to identify employers in their home state and review the requirements for employment. This could be a useful tool for the veteran when looking for employment opportunities or planning employment training using the Montgomery GI Bill.
H.R. 3681, the “Veterans Benefits Awareness Act of 2007”
PVA fully supports H.R. 3681, the “Veterans Benefits Awareness Act.” This bill would allow the VA to use national media outlets to conduct outreach to veterans around the country. Many veterans leave the service with very little knowledge of benefits available. Some service members participate in the Transition Assistance Program (TAP) prior to their separation from the military. In TAP they receive information about searching for a job and VA benefits. Though it has been used more widely in recent years, this program is still not mandatory for service members and it is not a standard program where all servicemembers in all branches receive the same information. PVA and other veterans’ service organizations have continuously expressed concerns about the VA not making an effort to reach out to veterans who have earned and deserve health care and benefits.
We believe it is the responsibility of the VA to use whatever means necessary to inform veterans and their families of the benefits and services available to them. VA must ensure that the needs of the men and women who have served and sacrificed are provided for.
H.R. 3889, Longitudinal Study of VA Voc Rehab
PVA fully supports the H.R. 3889, a bill that requires the VA to conduct a longitudinal study of veterans who enter the Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment (VR&E) program beginning in FY 2008. We believe that VR&E is critical to the reintegration of severely disabled veterans into civilian life. The primary mission of the VR&E program is to provide veterans with service-connected disabilities all the necessary services and assistance to achieve maximum independence in daily living and to the maximum extent feasible, to become employable and to obtain and maintain suitable employment.
In fact, PVA places such an importance on vocational rehabilitation that last year we designed our own vocational rehabilitation program to further support what the VA is already doing, and to go above and beyond current services. The concept of the program is to provide vocational rehabilitation services under a PVA – corporate partnership that augments the many existing vocational programs. PVA believes that by introducing veterans with SCI disability to vocational rehabilitation counselors specializing in SCI disability that are able to provide extensive vocational–oriented services early in the medical rehabilitation process and who can continue to provide services as needed, the productivity and employment rates for this group of veterans will improve.
In partnership with VA and Health Net Federal Services, PVA opened its first vocational rehabilitation office in the SCI Center of the VA Medical Center in Richmond, Virginia in July 2007. The workload in our pilot office has grown rapidly and our PVA vocational rehabilitation counselor in Richmond is currently carrying a caseload of more than 70 veterans.
Buoyed by our rapidly growing caseload in Richmond, the establishment of productive relationships with the Veterans Health Administration and VR&E, PVA just recently opened a second vocational rehabilitation office in Minneapolis under the corporate sponsorship of Tri West. In fact, the ribbon cutting for that office will be this Friday, April 18, 2008. We are confident that our continuing efforts in this initiative as well as the continuing efforts of our VA partners will result in the 85 percent unemployment rate among PVA members becoming a sad statistic of the past.
H.R. 4539, the “Department of Veterans Affairs Loan Guaranty Cost Reduction Act of 2007”
PVA supports H.R. 4539, the department of Veterans Affairs loan Guaranty Cost reduction act of 2007. This legislation will increase the maximum amount of the home loan guaranty that the VA provides to veterans. It will cap funding fees on loans and provide incentives for using the VA loan for affordable housing. The bill will update the existing VA Loan Guaranty Program with the hope that more veterans will become homeowners.
H.R. 4883 will amend the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act to provide for a limitation on the sale, foreclosure, or seizure of property owned by a servicemember during the one-year period following the servicemember’s period of military service. PVA supports this legislation that will protect the servicemember from losing his or her home because they were away defending this nation.
H.R. 4884 the “Helping our Veterans to Keep their Homes Act of 2008”
PVA supports H.R. 4884, the “Helping our Veterans to Keep their Homes Act of 3008”. H.R 4884 will amend Title 38, United States Code, to make improvements in the home loan guaranty program increasing the total amount of the loan guaranty and restricting fees to make the program more attractive for veterans to use.
H.R. 4889, “The Guard and Reserve Are Fighting Too Act of 2008”
PVA supports H.R. 4889 the “Guard and Reserve are fighting Too Act of 2007”. This legislation will recodify the educational benefit for the Guard and Reserve from the current Title 10, to Title 38, United States Code. Along with this recodification, Congress will make significant changes in the educational benefits for those servicemembers that are playing a significant role in the War on Terrorism. Many of the young Guard and Reserve members worked in a part time position, attended school, or worked in a position that paid less than a living wage. This legislation will allow Guard and Reserve members to return to school or enroll in a training class to further their career.
Recent surveys show that veterans returning home from military duty face a bleak job market. Eighteen percent of the veterans who recently returned from tours of duty are unemployed. Of those employed since leaving the military, 25 percent earn less than $21,800 a year, according to the VA. This legislation will provide these veterans with the money needed to continue their education while employed, or looking for employment.
H.R. 5664, Specially Adapted Housing
While PVA supports the intent of H.R. 5664, we have serious concerns with the language of the bill, as it is written. The legislation specifically calls for the VA to regularly update specially adapted housing “plans and specifications” furnished to veterans by the VA. The VA is not responsible for providing plans and specifications to veterans who are eligible for the Specially Adapted Housing (SAH) grant. It provides assistance to the veteran through application of ideas presented in the Handbook for Design: Specially Adapted Housing (VA Pamphlet 26-13). We believe that the language of the bill should read “The Secretary shall update the Handbook for Design at least once every six years. The update should include consideration for new and unique disabilities to include vision impairments, impairments specific to upper limb amputation, and burn injuries. “
PVA was fortunate to participate in the hearing held last year regarding application of the SAH grant. We are well aware of the unique challenges faced by many new veterans with complex disabilities incurred while serving in the War on Terror. However, it is important to understand that the basic accessibility concepts in the VA Pamphlet 26-13 are not outdated, as implied during that hearing. If there is a fault, it is that it seems to focus on wheelchair accessibility. But what most people do not realize is that basic wheelchair accessibility is meant to cover the concept of universal home design. Furthermore, the accessibility recommendations suggested in VA Pamphlet 26-13 actually exceed American’s With Disabilities Act (ADA) recommendations as well as the Fair Housing Accessibility Guidelines. With these thoughts in mind, PVA can support the legislation if the language is changed to reflect the actual intent.
H.R.5684, the “Veterans Education Improvement Act of 2008”
PVA supports most of the provisions of this bill. We realize that legislation intended to replace existing landmark legislation such as the Montgomery GI Bill, will receive many modifications to satisfy various parties before if becomes law. With that in mind, we have only a few concerns. The Fee to participate in the program should be removed.
There was no charge for the educational benefit for the veterans of WWII or the Viet Nam era veterans. The veterans of the current conflict should not have to pay for this benefit. Although it is a reduced fee of $50 per month (for 24 months) from $100 per month, it is still a large amount of money from an E-1 or E-2 in the service.
The bill does not include educational benefits for the Guard and Reserve. Without these military components, the nation could not conduct the War on Terror. They are fighting and paying the cost war along with the regular forces. We have an obligation to provide the same educational benefits that the regular forces receive. We should not have to inform these veterans that perhaps a law will be passed next year, or 2010, that will give them equal educational benefits.
The extension of time to use the program is helpful for veterans who may need more time to complete there education. We favor the provision of including veterans in the program discharged with a General Discharge. The 5-Year pilot program for on-campus work-study positions can be helpful for many students. Using the educational assistance program for business courses and seminars is an innovative use of the program.
Increasing the fees paid to the schools will help the institutions with processing the veterans. Chairwoman Herseth Sandlin, Ranking Member Boozman, members of the Committee, I would like to thank you again for this opportunity to express our concerns on these issues. I would be happy to answer any questions you may have.