sbrooks's picture


Congressional Updates

Both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate returned to Capitol Hill this week. The Congress meets next week and then recesses again from April 30 to May 4.

Legislation Introduced to Target For-Profit Schools Use of Federal Student Funds

Senators Tom Harkin (IA) and Kay Hagan (NC) introduced a bill Wednesday to prohibit colleges of all kinds from using dollars from federal student assistance programs to pay for advertising. Federal student aid programs can account for up to 90 percent of for-profit colleges' revenues. The schools spend on average a quarter of their revenues on recruiting — in some cases approaching what they spend on instruction. A Senate report on 15 large for-profit education companies found they get 86 percent of their revenues from taxpayers, and have spent a combined $3.7 billion annually on marketing and recruiting. For-profit schools have been known to specifically target veterans due to the generous money available through the G.I. Bill. While it is important to note that not all for-profit schools are bad actors, veterans have been known to fall prey to less-than-honest recruitment practices, and may risk using their entire G.I. Bill benefit for educational programs which are not useful in advancing the veterans’ career. This legislation would make strides to minimize this possibility.


House VA Panel Holds Hearing on Service Officers’ Role in the Claims Process

On April 18, the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee held a hearing entitled, “From the Inside Out: A Look at the Claims Representatives’ Role in the Disability Claims Process.” Chairman Jeff Miller (FL) opened the hearing by thanking The American Legion for calling his attention to the often unheralded role of service officers in the claims process. Many of the sentiments of the committee were familiar to those who follow the struggles of the claims process. VA places an undue priority of quantity over quality, leading to inaccurate work. Over 65 percent of claims are "in backlog" and veterans are waiting far too long for a final decision in this inefficient system.

The Veterans Service Organizations (VSOs) present, led by Legionnaire Randy Fisher, Department Service Officer for Kentucky, took VA to task for failing to meet the training example set by the VSOs. Simply put, VSOs put a much higher emphasis on the importance of training. They train hard because they have to get it right the first time, or veterans’ claims will be stuck in a seemingly endless appeals process that takes not months, but years to resolve.

Mr. Fisher also stressed the importance of hiring veterans in these VA positions, as they bring their military experiences to better understand the military records and language, and challenged VA to hire more veterans for claims adjudication. Veteran employees will better understand the struggles of their fellow veterans.

Questioned by the committee on areas where VA could improve training, Mr. Fisher noted VA employees are often lacking in basic medical understanding, citing a claims examiner he's crossed who insisted that a doctor who mentioned "neuropathy in all extremities" had not mentioned "hands and feet." Even a better basic knowledge to understand hands and feet are extremities would benefit the VA workers. All VSOs noted better inclusion of medical understanding in training would help improve VA claims examiners' work.

Throughout questioning by the committee the common mantra was clearly that training is THE critical component to improving VA's accuracy. The service officers present all noted many VA employees in their Regional Offices who view training as something that takes them away from work, rather than viewing training as an integral part of their work. "It's a cultural issue within VA and they need to get away from it to make their training more effective." Fisher noted.

Further examination by the committee examined ways VA could not only hire, but also retain veterans in the workforce. Ultimately there are excellent veteran employees out there, but better effort needs to be made to match them to jobs suited to their skills and provide them with the resources and backing to keep them working and serving their fellow veterans.

A subsequent witness, Tom Murphy, VA’s Director of Compensation Service, was harshly criticized by the panel for VA’s continuing struggles to reduce the claims backlog. Largely separate from the content of the previous portion of the hearing, Director Murphy was called upon to defend the abysmal performance of the Oakland Regional Office in the home district of committee member Jerry McNerney (CA). Mr. McNerney noted the Regional Office was the second worst in the entire VA system in terms of accuracy and percentage of cases pending beyond the 125 day target goal. The committee grilled Director Murphy on how VA planned to turn around performance in that office and other underperforming Regional Offices. A great deal of emphasis was placed on improving training methods and priorities as noted by the service officers, and providing better feedback on where failure was occurring so it could be corrected with future improvements.

House VA Health Subcommittee Conducts Legislative Hearing

On April 16, the House Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Health held a hearing to receive testimony on a number of bills pending before the subcommittee. The Legion submitted written testimony in support of H.R. 3337 and several other bills at the hearing.

An Open Burn Pit Registry will be established if a pending House bill, supported by The American Legion, becomes law. H.R. 3337 would allow service members and veterans who have experienced hazardous environmental exposures in the battlefield to have their cases tracked more effectively by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).

Other pending House legislation supported by the Legion includes:

H.R. 1460, a bill which provides for automatic enrollment of veterans returning from combat zones into the VA medical system. Several VA programs and initiatives in this area have been helpful, but the need still exists to fully automate enrollment at a service member’s point of transition from the Department of Defense (DOD) health-care system to VA. Service members would have the option to decline such enrollment or to disenroll themselves from the system.

H.R. 3016, directs DOD and VA to jointly operate the Federal Recovery Coordination (FRC) program. The FRC assists service members with severe injuries that may cause them to separate from active duty. It also helps service members and veterans who have difficulties making the transition to civilian life.

H.R. 3245, "The Efficient Service for Veterans Act," directs DOD and VA to ensure Vet Centers have access to DOD’s Personnel Record Imaging Retrieval System and the VA/DOD Identity Repository System. This measure would enable VA-operated Vet Centers to access not only VA’s health-care system, but also DOD’s personnel records. Such access would dramatically improve the overall performance of Vet Centers in addressing the mental-health needs of the veterans’ community. While the Legion supports this bill, it also urges DOD and VA to keep treatment records at Vet Centers confidential, and to not share the contents with third parties unless a veteran has given his or her written consent.

H.R. 3279, seeks to clarify that caregivers for veterans with serious illnesses are eligible for VA assistance and support services provided under Title 38 of the U.S. Code. Currently, the code applies only to veterans with "serious injury." The bill would change the code’s language to include veterans with serious illnesses, as well.

In its written testimony on H.R. 3279, the Legion urged VA to conduct a study on the numbers of veterans’ caregivers’ children who do not have medical insurance, and make recommendations for providing such assistance.

House VA Subcommittee Holds Markup Hearing

On April 18, the House Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Disability and Memorial Affairs (DAMA) held a markup hearing to discuss pending legislation and offer possible amendments before voting to recommend or reject the legislation. The bills under consideration were H.R. 4114, H.R. 4142, and H.R. 2377.

H.R. 4114, the “Veterans Compensation Cost of Living Adjustment Act of 2012,” is an annual bill passed by Congress to provide a cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) for disabled veterans, pending the determination of the Consumer Price Index (CPI) whether the cost of living has in fact risen. This bill was recommended to the full committee without amendment or opposition.

H.R. 4142 has been renamed the “Honoring our Commitment to America’s Heroes Act of 2012.” In its previous incarnation, the bill proposed making the COLA increases permanent and tied directly to Social Security, rather than the current system which is still tied to the same CPI as Social Security, but requires the passage of a bill each year (such as H.R. 4114 listed above) to enact the COLA increase. The American Legion had previously commented on the bill at a legislative hearing, applauding the notion of a permanent system to guarantee COLA increases for veterans, but disagreeing with the automatic association with Social Security, citing the need for veterans’ situations to be considered individually and not lumped in with other issues such as Social Security, which is under scrutiny at times for cost cutting. The new amendments to the bill still tie the increases to Social Security; however the controversial practice of “rounding down” the increases, which most veterans’ groups objected to, has been removed, allowing for slight potential gains to the COLA.

H.R. 4142 also saw the addition of several other bills into its language, making it a more comprehensive piece of legislation. Added to this was the former “Missing In America Act,” which provides for the VA to assist with the identification and honorable burial of unclaimed cremated remains currently being held at funeral parlors across the country. The measure had been supported by The American Legion. Also added was a bill to require judges serving on the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims (CAVC) to live within a 50 mile radius of Washington, DC. The American Legion had objected to arbitrary residency requirements for employment on the CAVC, preferring that appointment decisions be made solely on judicial qualifications so long as the judges could meet all of their obligations to the veterans before the court without additional expense to the CAVC. The current nature of electronic communication and the fact that judges are required to pay all travel out of their own pocket and are not reimbursed by the court were also cited by our organization. The amended language slightly increases the residency zone to “a 50 mile radius from the Greater Washington Metropolitan Area.”

The amended H.R. 4142 was recommended to the full committee as amended without objection.

The final bill up for consideration was H.R. 2377, “Remembering American Patriotism in Defense Claims Act.” This bill originally provided for expedited service for fully developed claims. After testimony by veterans’ groups indicated that many provisions had already been enacted by VA without the legislation, it was amended to reflect those changes and concerns. The bill was further amended by combining it with two patriotic measures. One sought to enact a national moment of silence on Veterans Day in remembrance of the sacrifices of service members. The other provides for appointment of “American World War II Cities” to promote recognition of the sacrifices and accomplishments of American cities in support of the war effort during World War II.

The amended H.R. 2377 was recommended to the full committee as amended without objection.

The next step for these pieces of legislation will be consideration by the full House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, most likely in a markup session to be conducted next Thursday, April 26.

Legion Staff Attend National Journal Event

On Thursday, April 19th, National Journal held an event entitled “The Next America: How Demography Shapes the National Agenda.” Two panels discussed the growing diversity of American society, and what the implications for the future of American politics.

The first panel consisted of three members of the U.S. House of Representatives: Hansen Clarke (MI); Emanuel Cleaver (MO); and Raul Labrador (ID). The Representatives, who were all of minority ethnicity, sparred over the nature of race relations, the importance of race in the ability to achieve the American Dream, and the future of race in America.

Next, the editorial director of National Journal, Ronald Brownstein, presented the findings of a new poll entitled “The Next America”, which measured the responses of various racial demographics concerning issues of fairness, accessibility, social equality, and opportunity. See some of the results of the poll here:

The second panel consisted of 5 panelists: Esther Aguilera, President and CEO, Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute; Manny Espinoza, Chief Executive Officer, ALPFA; William H. Fray, Senior Fellow, Metropolitan Policy Program, The Brookings Institution; Jennifer Korn, Executive Director, Hispanic Leadership Network; and Paul Taylor, Director, PEW Hispanic Center. The discussion was moderated by Ronald Brownstein of the National Journal, and Michele Norris, host of NPR’s All Things Considered. This panel discussed issues dealing particularly with the growing Hispanic population in America, and the need to consider ways in which they can be incorporated into the national dialogue. Further, they addressed the problem of immigration and illegal immigration, discussing the need for immigration reform, and the need for immigrants to foster our growing and changing economy.

The event concluded with a one-on-one interview of Senator Marco Rubio (FL) conducted by National Journal’s Major Garrett. After fielding several questions pertaining to his ambitions concerning the vice-presidency in a Mitt Romney presidential administration – which he denies – he then turned to discussion of immigration policies, and the growing Hispanic population. He stated that while significant reform is needed, state laws, while within the Constitutional limits of the rights granted to states, should never be necessary, were the Federal government doing its job. Furthermore, he stated that these laws should not be considered models for the way states should legislate on the issue. He then turned to discussion of his alternative to the Democrat’s DREAM Act, which he hopes to use in the upcoming election cycle to tout the Republican commitment to immigration reform.

Legislative Division Staffer Attends Dedication Ceremony

On Monday, April 16th, Shaun Rieley, Assistant Director of Legislative spoke on behalf of The American Legion at a dedication ceremony for one of the original guns from the U.S.S. Missouri, which has been moved from its original location in Norfolk, Virginia and transported to Lewes, Delaware in order to become a permanent part of the World War II museum at that location.

The U.S.S. Missouri was the ship on which the Japanese signed the peace agreement on September 2, 1945, effectively bringing World War II to an end. The gun will be on display to commemorate what was one of the most fortified positions on the U.S. eastern seaboard during World War II, Fort Miles. The location is now known as Cape Henlopen State Park, but the memory of the wartime service is maintained through a museum at the site. Rieley joined several other speakers in the ceremony, including a representative for Senator Tom Carper (DE) and Newt Tyndall, a World War II veteran who was the navigator aboard the lead B-29 which flew over the Missouri on V-J Day in a show of force.

Letters of Support

On April 16, The American Legion sent a letter of support to House Financial Services Committee Chairman. Spencer Bachus (AL), for draft legislation entitled the “Affordable Housing and Self-Sufficiency Improvement Act of 2012.” The measure addresses several underlying concerns our organization has recognized relating to veteran housing. These include clarification of income verification methods and formulas. A copy of the letter was also sent to all members of the Financial Services Committee.

On April 19, The American Legion sent a letter of support to Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chair Patty Murray (WA), for S. 2299, entitled the “Servicemembers Rights Enforcement Improvement Act of 2012.” This legislation would improve the provision of civil relief to members of the uniformed services and to improve and strengthen the enforcement of employment and reemployment rights of those members.