April 5, 2017

Chairman Bost, Ranking Member Esty and distinguished members of the Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs, on behalf of National Commander Charles E. Schmidt and The American Legion, the country’s largest patriotic wartime service organization for veterans, comprising over 2.2 million members and serving everyman and woman who has worn the uniform for this country, we thank you for the opportunity to testify on behalf of The American Legion’s positions on the following pending legislation.

H.R. 105: Protect Veterans from Financial Fraud Act of 2017

To amend title 38, United States Code, to ensure that the Secretary of Veterans Affairs repays the misused benefits of veterans with fiduciaries, to establish an appeals process for determinations by the Secretary of Veterans Affairs of veterans’ mental capacity, and for other purposes.

VA’s Fiduciary Program is designed to protect the most vulnerable beneficiaries determined to be unable to manage their financial affairs. A fiduciary is authorized to directly receive a beneficiary’s benefits and act in the best interest of the beneficiary by making payments to creditors and providing assurances for the financial well-being of the beneficiary. VA’s 2017 Congressional Submission VBA-219 states, “Fiduciary Program beneficiaries are represented in all VA benefit categories with the majority of its beneficiaries in receipt of benefits.” Additionally, over 50 percent of beneficiaries in the Fiduciary Program are 80 years old or older.[1]

Sadly, not all fiduciaries act in the best interest of beneficiaries (by stealing, wasting money, or otherwise acting inappropriately) and in many instances beneficiaries are unable to recover their lost benefits. The VA is already authorized to reissue benefits to a beneficiary if an individual fiduciary manages 10 or more beneficiaries; however, if the fiduciaries represents less than 10 beneficiaries, the veteran is unable to recoup the lost benefits.

Fortunately, H.R. 105 addresses this disparity. All veterans injured by VA fiduciaries should be able to collect on lost funds due to a betrayal of trust.[2]

The American Legion supports H.R. 105.

H.R. 299: Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act of 2017

To amend title 38, United States Code, to clarify presumptions relating to the exposure of certain veterans who served in the vicinity of the Republic of Vietnam, and for other purposes.

Veterans who served on open sea ships off the shore of Vietnam during the Vietnam War are called "Blue Water Veterans." Currently, Blue Water Veterans must have actually stepped foot on the land of Vietnam or served on its inland waterways anytime between January 9, 1962 and May 7, 1975 to be presumed to have been exposed to herbicides when claiming service-connection for diseases related to Agent Orange exposure.

Blue Water Veterans who did not set foot in Vietnam or serve aboard ships that operated on the inland waterways of Vietnam must show on a factual basis that they were exposed to herbicides during military service in order to receive disability compensation for diseases related to Agent Orange exposure. These claims are decided on a case-by-case basis.

We are aware that VA previously asked the National Academy of Sciences' Institute of Medicine (IOM) to review the medical and scientific evidence regarding Blue Water Veterans’ possible exposure to Agent Orange and other herbicides. IOM's report “Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans and Agent Orange Exposure” was released in May 2011. The report concluded that "there was not enough information for the IOM to determine whether Blue Water Navy personnel were or were not exposed to Agent Orange."

However, Vietnam veterans who served on land and sea now have health problems commonly associated with herbicide exposure. Just as those who served on land were afforded the presumption because it would have placed an impossible burden on them to prove exposure, Congress should understand the injustice of placing the same burden on those who served offshore. Clearly, all the toxic wind-blown, waterborne, and contamination transfer stemming from aircraft, vehicle, and troop transfer makes it impossible to conclude that Agent Orange-dioxin somehow stopped at the coast line.

The American Legion strongly supports legislation to expand the presumption of Agent Orange exposure to any military personnel who served on any vessel during the Vietnam War that came within 12 nautical miles of the coastlines of Vietnam.[3]

The American Legion supports H.R. 299.

H.R. 1328: American Heroes COLA Act of 2017

To amend title 38, United States Code, to provide for annual cost-of-living adjustments to be made automatically by law each year in the rates of disability compensation for veterans with service-connected disabilities and the rates of dependency and indemnity compensation for survivors of certain service-connected disabled veterans, and for other purposes.

In recent years, Congress has been attempting to establish an automatic mechanism to provide an annual increase in veterans’ disability benefits. The American Legion understands and appreciates the efforts to remove the veteran community from the political debate in determining appropriate annual adjustments to Cost-Of-Living Adjustment (COLA) amounts for disability benefits.  Unfortunately, while this bill would likely promote efficiency, it could also come with a significant cost to our nation’s veterans.

The current COLA formula already understates the true cost-of-living increases faced by seniors and people with disabilities. According to one calculations “a 30-year-old veteran of the Iraq or Afghanistan war who has no children and is 100 percent disabled would likely lose about $100,000 in disability compensation by age 75 (calculated in today’s dollars), compared with benefits under the current cost-of-living formula.  Over a 10-year period, 23 million veterans would lose $17 billion in compensation and pension benefits.”[4]

The American Legion opposes “any legislative efforts to automatically index such cost-of-living adjustments to the cost-of-living adjustment authorized for Social Security recipients, non-service connected disability recipients and death pension beneficiaries.”[5] The reasoning behind this objection is that veterans sometimes have needs and expenses which should be considered on their own merits, rather than being simply lumped in with Social Security for simple expediency. 

Additionally, The American Legion “expresses strong opposition to using any Consumer Price Index that would reduce the annual cost-of-living adjustment for military retirees, veterans receiving Social Security benefits or Department of Veterans Affairs beneficiaries.”[6]

The American Legion OPPOSES H.R 1328.

H.R. 1329: Veterans Compensation Cost-of-Living Adjustment Act of 2017

To increase, effective as of December 1, 2017, the rates of compensation for veterans with service-connected disabilities and the rates of dependency and indemnity compensation for the survivors of certain disabled veterans, to amend title 38, United States Code, to improve the United States Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, to improve the processing of claims by the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, and for other purposes.

H.R.1329 would provide a Cost-of-Living Allowance (COLA) effective December 1, 2017. Disability compensation and pension benefits awarded by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) are designed to compensate veterans for medical conditions incurred through service, or who earn below an income threshold. When the cost of living increases due to inflation, it is only appropriate that veterans’ benefits increase commensurate with those increases.

For nearly 100 years, The American Legion has advocated on behalf of our nation’s veterans, to include the awarding of disability benefits associated with chronic medical conditions that manifest related to selfless service to this nation. Annually, veterans and their family members are subjects in the debate regarding the annual COLA for these disability benefits. For these veterans and their family members, COLA is not simply an acronym or a minor adjustment in benefits; instead, it is a tangible benefit that meets the needs of the increasing costs of living in a nation that they bravely defended.

H.R. 1329 is designed to allow for a COLA for VA disability and other monetary benefits. The American Legion supports legislation “to provide a periodic cost-of-living adjustment increase and to increase the monthly rates of disability compensation.”[7]

The American Legion supports H.R. 1329.

H.R. 1390

To amend title 38, United States Code, to authorize the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to pay costs relating to the transportation of certain deceased veterans to veterans’ cemeteries owned by a State or tribal organization.

The VA will pay transportation costs for an eligible deceased veteran for burial in a national cemetery. This legislation would expand this benefit to include state or tribal cemeteries. The American Legion supports the transporting of remains to the place of burial determined by the family.[8] Because this legislation expands options for the family, we support this bill.

The American Legion supports H.R. 1390.

H.R. 1564: VA Beneficiary Travel Act of 2017

To amend section 504 of the Veterans’ Benefits Improvements Act of 1996 to specify the funding source for travel related to examinations by physicians not employed by the Department of Veterans Affairs regarding medical disabilities of applicants for benefits under title 38, United States Code, to codify section 504 of the Veterans’ Benefits Improvements Act of 1996, and for other purposes.

On October 9, 1996, Congress passed and the President signed into law, Public Law 104–275, the Veterans’ Benefits Improvements Act of 1996. This bill would amend section 504 of the law to specify the funding source for veterans travel related to examinations by physicians not employed by the Department of Veterans Affairs regarding medical disabilities of applicants for benefits under title 38, United States Code. 

Since the authority is already law, and the bill aims to clean up and properly designate where the VA would draw these resources and would not impose any additional funding requirements, The American Legion has no objections to H.R. 1564.

The American Legion supports H.R. 1564.

H.R. 1725: Quicker Benefits Delivery Act of 2017

To amend title 38, United States Code, to improve the treatment of medical evidence provided by non-Department of Veterans Affairs medical professionals in support of claims for disability compensation under the laws administered by the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, and for other purposes.

Many veterans submit private medical evidence to support their claims for disability benefits. For veterans that require additional medical review or do not provide a statement from a medical professional linking the medical condition to military service, VA provides compensation and pension (C&P) examinations to determine the link or severity of medical conditions.

Over the past 20 years The American Legion has reviewed tens of thousands of claims in regional offices around the country through our Regional Office Action Review (ROAR) program. The American Legion has testified to Congress that VA schedules unnecessary and duplicative examinations despite already having the evidence necessary to grant the claim. This adds further complication to an already complicated process.

The American Legion understands that there are occasions where a veteran would need a second examination after submitting a medical nexus statement. If a private medical provider did not use a VA disability medical questionnaire, then it stands to reason that the provider may not have conducted the necessary tests to accurately rate the veteran. 

Unfortunately, these instances did not get noticed solely during ROAR visits. They are noticed far too frequently by American Legion representatives at the Board of Veterans’ Appeals. There have been occasions where veterans have been seeking total disability based on individual unemployability (TDIU) benefits. Meanwhile, the veteran had previously been granted Social Security disability benefits for a condition incurred in service and service connected by VA. Despite enduring medical examinations for Social Security purposes and having the benefit granted by the agency, VA would conduct their own examinations to determine the veteran’s employability. Some in the veteran community refer to this needless development of disability claims as “developing to deny”. 

This bill will compel VA to release data that establishes acceptable clinical evidence and increase transparency for claims development and adjudication. With congressional and VA focus on how private medical evidence is treated, The American Legion believes that the treatment of the evidence received from private medical providers will receive higher consideration. This will expedite adjudications and increase claims processing transparency.[9]

The American Legion supports H.R. 1725. 

Conclusion

As always, The American Legion thanks this subcommittee for the opportunity to explain the position of the over 2.2 million veteran members of this organization.  For additional information regarding this testimony, please contact Mr. Warren J. Goldstein at The American Legion’s Legislative Division at (202) 861-2700 or wgoldstein@legion.org.




[1] 2017 Congressional Submission VBA-219

[2] American Legion Resolution No. 13 (September 2016): Fiduciary Responsibility

[3] American Legion Resolution No. 246 (Sept. 2016): Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans

 

 

 

 

[5] American Legion Resolution No. 187 (Sept. 2016): Department of Veterans Affairs Disability Compensation

[6] American Legion Resolution No. 164 (Sept. 2016): Oppose Lowering of Cost-of-Living Adjustments

 

 

 

 

 

[7] American Legion Resolution No. 164 (Sept. 2016): Oppose Lowering of Cost-of-Living Adjustments

[8] American Legion Resolution No. 181 (Sept. 2016): National Cemetery Administration

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[9] American Legion Resolution No. 123 (Sept. 2016): Increase the Transparency of the Veterans Benefits Administration’s Claim Processing