Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee, thank you for inviting us here today to present our views on several bills that would affect Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) benefits programs and services. Accompanying me today are Ms. Patricia Lynch Watts, Director, Legislative and Regulatory Service, and Mr. David Barrans, Deputy Assistant General Counsel.
At this time, cost estimates are not available for the following bills: H.R. 2088, H.R. 2529, H.R. 3671, H.R. 4102, H.R. 4141, and H.R. 4191.
Section 2(a) of H.R. 2018, the “Honor Those Who Served Act of 2013,” would amend section 2306 of title 38, United States Code (U.S.C.), to specify the persons who are eligible to request a headstone or marker to commemorate an eligible decedent. More specifically, the bill would make the following individuals eligible to request a headstone or marker: (1) the decedent’s next-of-kin (NOK); (2) a person authorized in writing by the NOK; (3) a personal representative authorized in writing by the decedent; (4) when there is no known NOK or authorized representative, specified persons and entities familiar with the research sources and methods necessary to prove the identity of the decedent; or (5) in the case of a Veteran who served on active duty in the Armed Forces at least 62 years prior to the date on which the headstone or marker is requested, any person. Section (2)(a) of the bill would also specify that, under certain circumstances, a person requesting a headstone or marker may request that the headstone or marker be furnished without an emblem of belief. The amendments made by the bill would apply with respect to a request for a headstone or marker submitted after the date of enactment of the bill.
VA does not support H.R. 2018 because we believe the issue would be better addressed through the regulatory process. We interpret Congressional intent to be to ensure that there are no unmarked graves of Veterans. We share that goal and seek to ensure public input into the revised definition that is achievable through the issuance of a proposed rule.
VA is in the process of substantially rewriting the regulations governing the benefits administered by NCA, including the regulation governing applications for headstones and markers. The current headstone and marker application process is governed by section 38.632, title 38, Code of Federal Regulations (C.F.R.), which defines an “applicant” to mean the decedent’s NOK, a person authorized in writing by the NOK, or a personal representative authorized in writing by the decedent to apply for a headstone or marker. In this way, section 2(a) of the bill would codify the definition of “applicant” at 38 C.F.R. § 38.632(b)(1) but add two new classes of persons and entities eligible to apply for headstones and markers. VA promulgated the existing definition of an applicant to ensure that family members are not left out of the decision-making process for memorializing loved ones, a very personal matter. However, VA understands the concerns with the current regulatory definition of applicant, is in the process of drafting a proposed rule to amend the definition of applicant to address those concerns, and will solicit and consider comments from the public in connection with publication of that proposed rule.
VA’s pending regulatory process seeks to provide an effective means of addressing these concerns with the benefit of input from all affected and interested parties and will ensure that VA is able to adapt these policies as needed to address identified issues. We are concerned that certain aspects of the bill may give rise to operational concerns that could be avoided through rulemaking. For example, some of the bill’s terms – such as the references to “a local historian, or a genealogist or other person familiar with the research sources and methods necessary to prove the identity of the decedent” – are vague and may lead to difficulties implementing this legislation. Further, paragraph (h)(5) of 38 U.S.C. § 2306, as would be added by this bill, would allow “any person” to request a headstone or marker for a Veteran who served 62 years prior to the date of the request, even if the Veteran died only recently and there is an NOK. This could lead to an increased number of competing or conflicting requests concerning the same Veteran. VA also has a technical concern with the bill language. Section 2(a) would add at the end of current section 2306 new subsections (h) and (i). However, section 2306 currently ends with a subsection (h), which specifically lists certain prohibitions on the provision of headstones and markers.
VA does not have sufficient data to estimate the costs of this bill.
Section 1(a) of H.R. 2088 would require the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to carry out a 3-year pilot program under which the Secretary would establish in the Department of Veterans Affairs 12 “claims adjudication centers of excellence” (COE). Section 1(b) of the bill would direct the Secretary to select as the locations of the COEs the three highest performing regional offices in each of the four areas of VBA. The bill would also direct the Secretary to evaluate performance based upon the quality and accuracy of ratings of each of the regional offices and the average number of days a claim submitted to each of the regional offices is pending.
Section 1(c) of the bill would require each of the selected COEs to focus on adjudicating claims relating to one medical condition selected by the Secretary of Veterans Affairs; such conditions would be selected based on being “among the most complex and time consuming” for adjudication purposes. Section 1(d) would require each employee of a COE to receive specific training related to the selected medical condition for his or her COE and focus on that condition to the extent practicable. Section 1(d)(3) would authorize the Secretary to assign additional full-time employees to a COE and allow the director of the regional office from which the employee came to hire an additional full-time employee at the regional office. Section 1(e) of the bill would require the Secretary to select the medical conditions not later than 90 days after the date of enactment of the Act.
Although VA recognizes value in creating COEs, VA does not support this bill. For COEs to be successful, every aspect of claims processing must occur electronically. While disability compensation claims are processed electronically in the Veterans Benefits Management System (VBMS), functionality to support workload management at the detailed level that would be required to create COEs as specified in the bill is not scheduled to be released until fiscal year (FY) 2015. In addition, VA is concerned about selecting COEs based only on rating accuracy and the average number of days claims have been pending at a point in time. These measures vary by reporting period and do not reflect several other factors that would need to be considered in defining the “highest performing regional offices” in each area.
Further, VA is currently in the process of implementing various initiatives focused on improving claims processing accuracy and efficiency. VBA is developing the National Work Queue (NWQ), a paperless workload management initiative designed to improve VBA’s overall production capacity and assist with reaching the Secretary’s goals of completing all claims in 125 days at a 98-percent accuracy level in 2015. The NWQ is being implemented in a three-phased approach. The initial Transition Phase is currently underway and builds upon the success of the workload management strategy employed under VBA’s Oldest Claims Initiative. Starting in FY 2015, as workload management functionality is deployed in VBMS, VBA will begin the second phase, to centrally manage and distribute the claims inventory from the national level. In this phase, VBA will still distribute work to regional offices at the claim level rather than at the issue level. In the final phase, following further VBMS development, individual issues will be routed, nationally, to individual employees, based on the nature of the claim and the skill set of the particular claims processor.
VBA has also reorganized its workforce into cross-functional teams that work together on one of three segmented lanes: express, special operations, and core. These lanes are based on the complexity and priority of claims. Employees are assigned to lanes based on their experience and skill levels. Each regional office has a Special Operations Lane that applies intense focus and case management on specific categories of claims, such as claims from Veterans who are homeless, terminally ill, former Prisoners of War, or seriously injured. Employees in the Special Operations Lane receive specialized training on these types of claims.
VBA continues to invest in numerous people, process, and technology initiatives to eliminate the claims backlog and plans to revisit the concept of a COE pilot in
FY 2016. However, creating COEs before this timeframe would force VBA to redirect vital resources and hinder our ability to achieve its FY 2015 timeliness and quality goals.
Costs related to this bill are not available at this time.
Section 2(1) of H.R. 2119, the “Veterans Access to Speedy Review Act,” would amend section 7107 of title 38, U.S.C., to allow the Board of Veterans’ Appeals (Board) to determine, for purposes of scheduling a hearing for the earliest possible date, whether the hearing will be held at the Board’s principal location or at an appropriate Federal facility located within the area served by a regional office of the Department, and also whether to provide a hearing through the use of video conferencing. Section 2(1) would also permit the appellant to request a different location or type of hearing upon notification of the Board’s determination and give the Board discretion to grant such a request. Section 2(2) of the bill would remove the provision in paragraph (e)(2) of section 7107 that states that, if an appellant declines to participate in a hearing through use of electronic means, the opportunity for a hearing before the Board at its principal location or at an appropriate Federal facility located within the area served by a regional office of the Department will not be affected.
VA fully supports H.R. 2119, as this legislation would potentially decrease hearing wait times for Veterans, enhance efficiency within VA, and better focus Board resources toward issuing decisions. The Board has historically been able to schedule video conference hearings, more quickly than
in-person hearings, saving valuable time in the appeals process. In FY 2013, on average, video conference hearings were held 110 days sooner than in-person hearings. H.R. 2119 would allow both the Board and Veterans to benefit from these time savings by giving the Board greater flexibility to schedule video conference hearings than is possible under the current statutory scheme.
Enactment of H.R. 2119 could also lead to increased productivity at the Board. Time lost due to travel and time lost in the field due to appellants failing to appear for their hearing would be greatly reduced, allowing Veterans Law Judges (VLJ) to better focus their time and resources on issuing decisions. The time saved for VLJs could translate into faster issuance of Board decisions for Veterans. Historical data also shows that there is no statistical difference in the ultimate disposition of appeals based on the type of hearing held. Veterans who had video conference hearings had an allowance rate for their appeals that was virtually the same as Veterans who had
in-person hearings. H.R. 2119 would, however, still afford Veterans who want an
in-person hearing the opportunity to specifically request one.
Finally, major technological upgrades to the Board’s video conference hearing equipment over the past several years makes the Board well-positioned for the enactment of H.R. 2119. This includes the purchase of high-definition video equipment and state-of-the art digital audio recording system, implementation of a virtual hearing docket, and significantly increased video conference hearing capacity. Enactment of H.R. 2119 would allow the Board to better leverage these important technological enhancements.
VA estimates that this bill would result in a reduction in travel expenses over time. However, without knowing the number of remote hearings or the reduction in travel Board hearings that would be provided under the enhanced authority in this bill, VA cannot provide specific cost estimates.
H.R. 2529, the “Veteran Spouses Equal Treatment Act,” would amend section 101 of title 38, U.S.C., to amend the definitions of “surviving spouse” and “spouse” for purposes of title 38. Specifically, the bill would remove from the definition of “surviving spouse” the phrase “of the opposite sex,” and amend the definition of “spouse” to provide that “an individual shall be considered a ‘spouse’ if the marriage of the individual is valid in the State in which the marriage was entered into or, in the case of a marriage entered into outside any State, if the marriage is valid in the place in which the marriage was entered into and the marriage could have been entered into in a State.” The bill would define “State” the same as that term is defined in section 101(20) of title 38, U.S.C., for purposes of title 38, but include also “the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.”
VA generally supports the passage of this bill, but has some concerns with the bill’s language. Current section 101(3) and (31) of title 38, U.S.C., limit the definitions of “surviving spouse” and “spouse” for purposes of title 38 to only a person of the opposite sex of the Veteran. The language in these provisions is substantively identical to the language in section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), 1 U.S.C. § 7, which the Supreme Court, in United States v. Windsor, 133 S. Ct. 2675 (2013), declared to be unconstitutional because it discriminates against legally-married, same-sex couples. On September 4, 2013, the United States Attorney General informed Congress that the President had directed the Executive Branch to cease enforcement of sections 101(3) and (31) of title 38 to the extent that those provisions preclude the recognition of
legally-valid marriages of same-sex couples. Pursuant to the President’s direction, VA is no longer enforcing the title 38 provisions to the extent that they require a “spouse” or a “surviving spouse” to be a person of the opposite sex. Therefore, VA supports this bill as a means to amend the law to be consistent with the Supreme Court’s decision and the President’s directive. In particular, VA supports the removal of the requirement that a “spouse” or a “surviving spouse” be a person of the opposite sex from paragraphs (3) and (31) of section 101.
VA supports the general intent of section 2(2) of the bill to revise the criteria for determining the validity of a marriage. However, to further the goals of this bill and to avoid ambiguity regarding the applicable standard, we recommend that the bill also address section 103(c) of title 38, U.S.C, which provides that, in determining whether or not a person was a spouse of a Veteran, “marriage shall be proven as valid for the purposes of all laws administered by the Secretary according to the law of the place where the parties resided at the time of the marriage or the law of the place where the parties resided when the right to benefits accrued.” Section 103(c) is specific to title 38 and is different than the standard used by nearly all other Federal agencies, including the Department of Defense. Further, while VA supports the bill’s intent to change to the current marriage-validity criteria, VA is concerned that the marriage-validity criteria in section 2(2) of the bill may be overly restrictive. For example, VA notes that the bill is silent as to the applicability of tribal law to marriage validity. Under section 103(c), tribal law would be considered as “the law of the place where the parties resided.” However, under H.R. 2529, VA would only consider the law of the “State” in determining if a marriage is valid for the purpose of Veterans’ benefits. This could lead to the exclusion of some couples with valid marriages under tribal law. VA welcomes the opportunity to work with the Committee on this bill.
Costs related to this bill are not available at this time.
H.R. 3671 would amend section 2306 of title 38, U.S.C., to extend eligibility for a medallion furnished by VA in order to signify the deceased’s status as a Veteran regardless of date of death. Public Law 110-157 gave VA authority to “furnish, upon request, a medallion or other device of a design determined by the Secretary to signify the deceased’s status as a veteran, to be attached to a headstone or marker furnished at private expense," for eligible Veterans who died on or after November 1, 1990. H.R. 3671 would remove the date of death limitation by codifying in statute that eligibility exists regardless of date of death.
VA strongly supports the concept to expand eligibility for the medallion benefit, however, VA requests the Committee amend versus remove the current eligibility date of November 1, 1990. VA would greatly support an amendment to provide eligibility for individuals who served “on active duty on or after April 6, 1917.” Since VA began providing the medallion benefit in 2009, the vast majority (91 percent) of those claims were denied because the otherwise eligible Veteran died between 1960 and 1990. Additionally, there are more than 4.5 million deceased Veterans with service prior to April 6, 1917, which is the date the United States formally entered World War I. These Veterans could become eligible for the medallion benefit which could significantly impact the landscape of historic cemeteries and the historic headstones marking the graves of those who served prior to this date as well as impact the ability of NCA and other entities to comply with historic preservation and Federal stewardship statutes and regulations.
Costs related to this bill are not available at this time.
H.R. 3876, the “Burial with Dignity for Heroes Act of 2014,” would amend Chapter 20 of title 38, U.S.C., to add a new section 2067, which would direct the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to carry out a program to make grants to eligible entities to provide for the cost of burials for homeless Veterans who are eligible to be buried in a national cemetery and have no NOK, as determined by the Secretary. To be eligible to receive a grant under this provision, an entity would submit to the Secretary “an application containing such information and assurances as the Secretary determines appropriate.”
VA does not support H.R. 3876 because the bill is unnecessary, and may be confusing, given existing statutory and regulatory authority. VA strongly supports the objective of ensuring that those who have earned the right to burial in a national, state, or tribal Veterans cemetery are accorded that honor. However, VA has long provided in regulation, at 38 C.F.R. § 3.1603, for a burial and plot or interment allowance for unclaimed remains of deceased Veterans. Further, Public Law 112-260, the “Dignified Burial and Other Veterans’ Benefits Improvement Act of 2012,” specifically provided the Secretary authority to furnish a casket or urn for a deceased Veteran when the Secretary is unable to identify the Veteran’s NOK and determines that sufficient resources for the furnishing of a casket or urn for the burial of the Veteran in a national cemetery are not otherwise available. It is unclear from the language of H.R. 3876 the precise intent of the grant program and what benefits would be provided that are not currently provided by VA.
VA cannot estimate costs at this time given the uncertainty regarding the specific intent of the grant program with respect to what benefits would be provided for burial of the unclaimed remains of Veterans. In addition, without an understanding of the intended scope of the program, VA cannot estimate the resources and costs potentially involved in administration of the grant program.
H.R. 4095, the "Veterans’ Compensation Cost-of-Living Adjustment Act of 2014," would require the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to increase, effective December 1, 2014, the dollar amounts for payment of disability compensation, the clothing allowance, and dependency and indemnity compensation. This bill would increase these rates by the same percentage as the percentage by which Social Security benefits under title II of the Social Security Act are increased, effective December 1, 2013. Each dollar amount increased, if not a whole dollar amount, would be rounded to the next lower whole dollar amount. Finally, the bill would also require VA to publish the resulting increased rates in the Federal Register.
VA strongly supports this bill because it would express, in a tangible way, this Nation’s gratitude for the sacrifices made by our service-disabled Veterans and their surviving spouses and children and would ensure that the value of their well-deserved benefits will keep pace with increases in consumer prices.
VA notes it has included in its own legislative proposals for FY 2015 a 5-year extension of the round-down authority referred to above, which is carried forth for 1 year in H.R. 4095. We also note that prior bills authorizing cost-of-living adjustments to these benefits have consistently provided that the increase in VA benefits on December 1 would be an increase from the dollar amounts in effect on November 30 of the same year and correspond to the percent increase in Social Security benefits taking effect on December 1 of the same year. In contrast, this bill would provide that the increase in VA benefits on December 1, 2014, would be an increase from the dollar amounts in effect on November 30, 2013, and correspond to the increase in Social Security benefits that took effect on December 1, 2013. In view of the consistent past practice, we believe the references to “2013” in section (2)(a) and section 2(c)(1) of the bill may be inadvertent and should be changed to “2014”.
VA estimates that the rounding provision of the bill would result in cost-savings of $30 million in 2015, $189.6 million over 5 years, and $414.5 million over 10 years. VA’s cost estimates assume that the references to 2013 in the bill were inadvertent and therefore, based on estimated FY 2015 average payments for the subject benefits.
Section 1(a) of the draft bill would add the estate of a deceased claimant to the priority-ordered list of eligible recipients of accrued benefits under 38 U.S.C. § 5121, as long as the estate would not escheat. The amendments made by this section would apply to deaths occurring on or after the date of enactment of the bill.
Section 1(c) of the draft bill would require the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to pay to the estate of Shelton Hickerson $377,342, representing the benefit awarded to Mr. Hickerson on the date of his death.
VA does not support H.R. 4102. In 1943, Congress enacted Public Law 78-144 and established, in what would become section 5121, a process by which certain Survivors could receive some portion of a Veteran’s accrued benefits. Since 1943, Congress has generally limited the payment of accrued benefits to surviving spouses, dependent children, and persons who paid for the expenses of the Veteran’s last sickness and burial.
By adding estates to the line of succession, VA would be required, in effect, to pay Veterans benefits for the benefit of persons or organizations that were not dependents of the Veteran at the time of death, such as adult children, charities, and creditors. In addition, when there is an estate that would not escheat, VA would no longer be able to reimburse persons who incurred the Veteran’s last sickness and burial expenses because the estate would have priority over a person who incurred such expenses.
VA regrets that it was unable to pay Mr. Hickerson all of his benefits before his death. However, VA opposes section 1(c) of the draft bill requiring that it pay the estate of Mr. Hickerson accrued benefits because such payment would treat his case differently from other similarly situated Veterans.
VA also opposes the draft bill as it would potentially expand the eligibility to substitute under 38 U.S.C. § 5121A, “Substitution in case of death of claimant,” because “a living person who would be eligible to receive accrued benefits due to the claimant under section 5121(a)” may request to substitute for the deceased claimant in a pending claim or appeal. In this way, the executor of a Veteran’s estate could request to substitute for the Veteran to complete a claim or appeal pending at the time of the Veteran’s death.
Costs related to this bill are not available at this time.
H.R. 4141 would amend section 8162 of title 38, U.S.C., to expand the authority of the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to enter into enhanced-use leases. Presently, enhanced-use lease authority is limited to leases for the provision of supportive housing. The bill would allow the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to enter into enhanced-use leases “only if the lease is not inconsistent with and will not adversely affect the mission of the Department for – (A) the provision of supportive housing; or (B) other purposes, only in the case of excess property of the National Cemetery Administration that is unsuitable for burial purposes.” The expanded authority would apply to leases entered into after the date of enactment of the Act.
VA would welcome the opportunity to work with the Committee on this bill. VA’s understands that the goal of the bill is to allow memorial halls, pavilions, and memorials to be built to show respect for the honor, courage, and commitment of Veterans. We note that, if one aim of the bill is to facilitate the placement of memorials or other enhancements to cemetery grounds paid for by private funds, NCA already has specific donation authority under current law to accomplish that end. Specifically, 38 U.S.C. § 2407, titled “[a]uthority to accept and maintain suitable memorials,” allows VA to accept donations “made in any manner, which are made for the purpose of beautifying national cemeteries, or are determined to be beneficial to such cemetery.” In addition, our national cemeteries are maintained as national shrines in honor of all who served our Nation. Thus, the construction of memorial halls, pavilions, and memorials under enhanced-use lease agreements, while feasible, needs to consider what would happen to the structures at the end of such leases.
Moreover, VA believes that the bill should allow for enhanced-use leases for “other purposes” on any and all underutilized and/or vacant VA-controlled properties. VA proposed such an authority in its FY 2015 budget, which would allow the Department to pursue enhanced-use leases for purposes beyond supportive housing, similar to the broader authority that existed prior to December 2011. To the extent the bill is not broadened to authorize enhanced-use leases for VA-controlled properties in addition to NCA property, VA has a concern regarding the phrase “unsuitable for burial purposes” in section 1(a) on page 2, line 18, of the bill. VA believes that this criterion for use of an enhanced-use lease would be easier to implement operationally if it read “not needed for burial purposes for the duration of the lease.”
Further, VA has a technical concern regarding the bill language establishing the criteria for entering into an enhanced-use lease. As noted above, section 1(a)(1) of the bill would provide that the Secretary of Veterans Affairs may enter into an enhanced-use lease “only if the lease is not inconsistent with and will not adversely affect the mission of the Department for—(A) the provision of supportive housing; or (B) other purposes, only in the case of property of the National Cemetery Administration that is unsuitable for burial purposes.” However, by leading into subparagraphs (A) and (B) with “for—,” the language suggests that the lease cannot conflict with the Department’s mission for the purposes listed in those subparagraphs. For example, read literally, this language might suggest that VA may enter into any enhanced-use lease that would not conflict with or adversely affect the mission of the Department for “the provision of supportive housing.” We do not believe that this is the intent of the bill. To the extent the intent of the bill is to allow for the use of enhanced-use leases for “the provision of supportive housing” or “other purposes, only in the case of excess property of [NCA] that is unsuitable for burial purposes,” but only if the lease is not “inconsistent with and will not adversely affect the mission of the Department,” the language of the bill should be revised.
Costs related to this bill are not available at this time.
Section 2 of H.R. 4191, the “Quicker Veterans Benefits Delivery Act,” would amend section 5125 of title 38, U.S.C., to require VA to accept a report of medical examination from a non-VA physician provided by a claimant in support of a claim for benefits if the report is sufficiently complete to be adequate for the purpose of adjudicating such claim. Section 2 of the bill would also define the phrase “sufficiently complete” to mean “competent, credible, probative, and containing such information as may be required to make a decision on the claim for which the report is provided.” These amendments would apply to medical evidence submitted after the date that is
90 days after the date of enactment of the Act.
Section 3 of the bill would require the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, not later than 180 days after the date of enactment of the Act, to submit a report to Congress regarding the “Acceptable Clinical Evidence (ACE) initiative” of VA “in reducing the necessity for in-person disability examinations and other efforts to comply with the provisions of section 5125 of title 38, U.S.C., as amended by section 2 of the Act. Finally, section 4 of the bill would require the Secretary to submit to Congress, on an annual basis, a report containing specific information from each regional office regarding Veteran claims involving private medical evidence.
VA does not support H.R. 4191. VA appreciates the general intent of the bill, which seeks to provide benefits to Veterans more expeditiously. However, as written, the legislation is unnecessary and would be problematic to implement. Section 2 of the bill would prohibit VA from requesting a medical examination when evidence submitted is adequate for rating purposes. Currently, section 5103A(d)(2) of title 38, U.S.C., provides that an examination or opinion is only required when the record does not contain sufficient medical evidence to make a decision. Furthermore, 38 U.S.C. § 5125 already explicitly states that private examinations may be sufficient, without conducting additional VA examinations, for adjudicating claims. Consistent with these statutory requirements and VA’s implementing regulation at 38 C.F.R § 3.159(c)(4), VA requests medical examinations only if the record does not contain sufficient medical evidence to decide the claim. Therefore, this section is unnecessary. VA is already allowed to adjudicate a claim without an examination if evidence is provided by the claimant that is adequate for rating purposes.
Regarding sections 3 and 4 of the bill, VA maintains data concerning the number of examinations in which ACE is used. However, VA does not track the number of claims eligible for ACE that required additional evidence obtained through a telephone interview or whether private medical evidence is sufficient or insufficient for rating purposes.
No costs are associated with section 2 of the bill as VA already has this authority in existing law. Costs related to sections 3 and 4 of this bill are not available at this time.
This concludes my statement, Mr. Chairman. Thank you for the opportunity to appear before you today. I would be happy to answer any questions you or the other Members of the Subcommittee may have.