VETERAN-RELATED LEGISLATIVE ACTIONS
Both the House of Representatives and Senate were in session this week. With less than nine months remaining in this Second Session of the 112th Congress, the timetable for action on many issues should accelerate. The Obama Administration has already announced the President will release his fiscal year 2013 budget next Monday, February 13, one week later than normal. This will be the third time in four years that the proposed federal budget will be late.
Senate Panel Tackles College Affordability “Crisis”
On February 2, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee held a hearing to listen to a panel of speakers discuss college affordability. This came a little more than a week after President Obama gave his State of the Union address, when he put colleges on notice that they risked losing taxpayer support if they couldn’t control their costs and increase their educational value. Lawmakers from both parties expressed agreement with the president’s assertion that tuition growth must be curtailed to maintain access to higher education.
Leading off discussion at the hearing was Martha Kanter, undersecretary of the U.S. Department of Education. She highlighted Obama’s plan to tackle rising college costs which includes increasing the money awarded to Pell Grant recipients, making loans more affordable and providing incentives for states to make commitments to higher education. One of Obama’s high profile proposals is to keep the interest rate for student loans at 3.4 percent, instead of letting it rise to 6.8 percent, which it will do in July unless Congress acts.
With the president set to release his 2013 budget Feb. 13, Kanter said Obama is firm on funding higher education and having a proposal that would not cost taxpayers more money. The Senate committee questioned Kanter on what would happen if states did not hold up their part of the bargain to keep costs down. “We can’t, as you know, restrict tuition increases. That’s not the role of government,” Kanter said. “But we want to look to the states and provide innovation funding so they can look at the polices that will stabilize tuition in the long term.” Kanter said the administration hopes to invest in colleges that provide good value and to take funds away from schools that do not. She said the administration will assess value by examining cost, service and outcomes.
Education Sector, an education policy think tank, Policy Director Kevin Carey also testified. “Over the past 10 years, public university tuition grew by an average of 5.6 percent above inflation every year,” Carey reminded the committee. “As a result, student loan debt is at an all-time high and access to college is threatened. Students and families can’t afford to pay these bills and, increasingly, neither can the American taxpayer. Annual federal financial aid to higher education has increased by over $100 billion in just the past decade.” Carey highlighted some of the ways that colleges are innovating to hold down both college costs—what colleges spend to educate students—and college prices—what students pay to attend school. For example, Virginia Tech, one of the nation’s leading finest engineering schools, has used technology to change the way students learn introductory mathematics. This approach, which Education Sector highlighted in the 2010 report The Course of Innovation: Using Technology to Transform Higher Education, has resulted in lower costs to the university and higher rates of success for students.
Carey also highlighted steps that university systems like the University of Maryland have taken to reduce costs. The result was millions of dollars saved “through joint purchasing, improving classes where many students were dropping out, and working with faculty to increase the number of credit hours professors teach.” But Carey also notes that action at the state level are partly responsible for rising college costs. “There is no doubt that colleges have raised their prices in recent years because states reduced their subsidies for higher education,” he said. “When state funding goes down, college gets more expensive. When state funding goes up, college gets more expensive.”
Senators in both parties seemed eager to continue discussions on how to hold down college prices and Committee Chairman Tom Harkin promised more discussion on the subject. “This," he said," is the first of many hearings."
House Armed Services Subpanel Hearing on National Guard Unemployment
On February 2, 2012 the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity held a hearing entitled, “Lowering the Rate of Unemployment for the National Guard.”
Ms. Emily DeRocco, President of the Manufacturing Institute, began the hearing and emphasized the severe labor shortage being experienced in the manufacturing sector due to an inability to match qualified workers with available jobs. She stated that in a recent survey, 80 percent of manufacturers reported a “moderate-to-serious” shortage of skilled production workers, and 75% indicate that this shortage has negatively impacted their ability to expand. She stated that “In real terms…[there are] 600,000 open jobs today in manufacturing.” She went on to highlight an online tool called the U.S. Manufacturing Pipeline, which aims to “…provide the information for separating military to learn about careers available in advanced manufacturing, locate the schools and programs that teach additional applicable skills, and find available jobs at manufacturers in every region of the country.” She stated that DoD is preparing a large advertising campaign in order to ensure that separating service members, and demobilizing National Guard and Reserve members are aware of this valuable resource. Finally, she stated that the U.S. Manufacturing Pipeline project involves engaging community colleges nationwide in order to encourage colleges to offer the types of programs which lead to manufacturing certifications, and will allow veterans more ready access to training which results in the skills necessary for employment in the manufacturing sector.
Following Ms. DeRocco was Mr. Theodore (Ted) L. Daywalt, CEO and President of VetJobs, an online resource for veterans looking for work. Mr. Daywalt testified that upwards of 65 percent of employers polled stated that they were reluctant to hire individuals who are still active in the National Guard, resulting in National Guard veterans comprising the majority of the veteran unemployed, according to his analysis of the data. With an impending reduction in the active force, National Guard members could face even stiffer competition from those being separated, while bearing the further disadvantage of continued part-time military service. The missed days from long drills, the two-week annual training exercises, professional development schools and the constant possibility of deployment create a situation in which National Guard members’ service becomes a liability when looking for employment, particularly when competing with other veterans who retain no further obligation.
Unchecked, Mr. Daywalt asserted that young, veteran unemployment in the National Guard could go as high as 50 percent. Mr. Daywalt acknowledged that while there is no “silver bullet” due to the extensive nature of the issue, there are some actions which can be taken to begin making strides toward alleviating some of these issues. Specifically, he made eleven recommendations, including: promotion of veteran entrepreneurship; increasing the ease of certification/licensing; providing compensation to employers for the hiring of National Guard members; improving educational initiatives; giving employers significant tax incentives to hire National Guard members; improvement of Transition Assistance Programs; and reporting of National Guard hiring by companies.
The second witness panel consisted of high-ranking National Guard officers of states with particularly high rates of veteran unemployment, along with Brigadier General Marianne Watson, Director, Manpower and Personnel, National Guard Bureau; Richard (Dick) A. Rue, State Chair, Iowa Employer Support of Guard and Reserve; and Mr. Ronald G. Young, Director, Family and Employer Program and Policy, U.S. Department of Defense. Each witness gave recommendations on how to reduce veteran unemployment. Overall, recommendations included educating employers on the benefits of hiring veterans, encouraging National Guard leadership to assist their members in locating and retaining employment, improving technology to bring employers and potential employees together, and increasing veterans’ access to education.
The third and final witness panel consisted solely of Mr. Ismael “Junior” Ortiz, Acting Assistant Secretary, Veterans’ Employment and Training Service (VETS), U.S. Department of Labor. Some of the programs aimed at addressing this issue highlighted by Mr. Ortiz were: Jobs for Veterans State Grants Program; Transition Assistance Program; Veterans Job Bank; The Gold Card (which provides six months of intensive job counseling and personalized case managements services at DOL One-Stop Career Centers); a web-based initiative through VETS; employer partnerships with VETS; and USERRA.
House Appropriations Subpanel Examines Consolidation of Military Medical Services
On February 8, the Legislative team attended an oversight hearing held by the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense on “Military Health Systems Governance.” The purpose was to hear the opinions of the Army, Navy, and Air Force Surgeons General regarding the current state of medical service operations and how they were progressing to the consolidation of their service medical operations under the Unified Medical Command concept. In addition, the committee wanted to hear their opinions regarding the effectiveness of the Joint Task Force that consolidated the Walter Reed, Fort Belvoir, and Bethesda Naval hospitals and whether that could serve as a model for the Unified Medical Command efforts.
Testimony revealed several problems to the committee: first, the Pentagon has not devised a plan to unite the medical operations of the services; no joint doctrine to study how the various service branches provide medical care has been developed (although some consolidation of some functions have occurred due to the BRAC law); no studies for cost savings of combining medical operations have been conducted; and there is no common financial accounting system for medical spending.
The witnesses did state that there are some joint medical operations at the joint base levels, but these medical services are still provided command and control by one service, for example, the Army operates the medical facilities at the Fort Bragg/Pope Air Force Base joint command. The witnesses stated all three services have different accounting systems and that one will have to be developed under a unified command and it would need to provide both transparency and efficiency.
When asked by committee members what, if any, medical consolidation efforts had been made the witnesses said the Air Force and Navy enlisted medical occupations personnel training had been consolidated at the Army training facility at Fort Sam Houston and the Air Force and Navy training bases had been closed.
The committee members expressed they were upset by the slowness of the medical consolidation plan and indicated the Pentagon would have to work harder on this consolidation as the upcoming budget debate would not let the services continue to operate three duplicative medical systems. The committee members stated that the service branches need to strive for a military medical command that provides one joint standard for medical care of all military personnel and that individual services could not continue to operate their facilities under their service rules even when the facilities are staffed by medical personnel from other branches of service.
House Veterans Affairs Subpanel Examines Veteran Fiduciary System
The American Legion’s Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation provided testimony to a hearing of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigation addressing problems within VA’s Fiduciary system. Veterans requiring a VA Fiduciary to manage their disability funds are amongst the most vulnerable veterans, often elderly or severely disabled and requiring a permanent caregiver.
Testimony highlighted many of the problems inherent in the system. Chairman Johnson (OH) cited the example of a VA appointed fiduciary with one semester of community college education who was managing funds for forty-three veterans and questioned whether such a person was qualified to do so in a matter that best represented the interests of the veterans involved. American Legion testimony notes fiduciaries often receive only two blocks of instruction of only two weeks length. More troubling is that in many cases, the veterans have no say or approval in who will manage their funds for them.
Further testimony indicated once a fiduciary has been appointed, veterans are blocked from any access to the financial records for their own money, and even Freedom of Information Act requests cannot prompt VA to release this information. As one of the veterans’ law attorneys present noted: “This is the veterans’ money, NOT VA’s money. It’s been lawfully adjudicated as a benefit to them, and they are blocked from access to their own money.”
The crux of the issue is that many veterans have existed in situations where a family member provides care for them for many years, then overnight VA moves in and controls their finances and often does not award fiduciary responsibility to the very family members who have been providing that care. Legion testimony cited examples of veterans still waiting to be assigned a fiduciary after two years, when previously a family member had been their court appointed caregiver.
The VA’s Director of Pension and Fiduciary Service, Dave McLenachen has only been in his current position for five months, but was adamant that these concerns were a top priority and VA was aggressively working to improve regulations and to address the complaints and problems within the system. Ranking Member McNernery (CA) noted the stark contrast in the viewpoints offered by the first and second panels of the hearing. While the VA panel consisted of “earnest, well meaning officials from Central Office who are working to solve the problems” the second group of veterans directly affected “showed the reality at the veteran level does not match the optimism.”
Chairman Johnson called the discrepancy “shocking” and cited a lengthy list of demands for information to VA at the conclusion of the hearing, noting “we will continue to pay close attention to this issue.”
LEGISLATIVE DIVISION ACTIONS
Letters of Support
On February 7, The American Legion sent a letter to Rep. Spencer Bachus (AL) – chairman of the House Financial Services Committee – thanking him for the introduction of draft legislation entitled the “Affordable Housing and Self-Sufficiency Improvement Act of 2012.” Although not aimed directly at veterans or veteran programs, the measure has several sections that address underlying concerns related to veterans, mainly to improve housing opportunities for our nation’s veterans.
Also on February 7, our organization sent a letter to Rep. Jeff Miller (FL) – chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee – thanking him for introducing H.R. 3895, entitled the “Protect VA Healthcare Act of 2012.” This legislation will amend the Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act of 1985 (P.L. 99-177) to clarify that all veterans programs are exempt from sequestration. The American Legion is concerned about potential funding cuts should sequestration be imposed on the FY 2013 VA budget. There is the possibility that VA’s budget for next year may be cut by 2 percent. We believe that VA’s budget is already insufficient. America’s enrolled veterans should not lose their benefits, nor should their healthcare be sacrificed to solve the nation’s budget problems. An excellent opinion article by Chairman Miller can be found here: http://mnstr.me/AuAjZO.