RAYMOND C. KELLEY
AMVETS NATIONAL LEGISLATIVE DIRECTOR
COMMITTEE ON VETERANS' AFFAIRS
UNITED STATES SENATE
THE INDEPENDENT BUDGET AND
THE DEPARTMENT OF VETERANS AFFAIRS
BUDGET REQUEST FOR FISCAL YEAR 2010
THURSDAY, MARCH 10, 2009
418 RUSSELL SENATE OFFICE BUILDING
Chairman Akaka, Ranking Member Burr, and members of the Committee:
AMVETS is honored to join our fellow veterans service organizations and partners at this important hearing on the Department of Veterans Affairs budget request for fiscal year 2010. My name is Raymond C. Kelley, National Legislative Director of AMVETS, and I am pleased to provide you with our best estimates on the resources necessary to carry out a responsible budget for VA.
AMVETS testifies before you as a co-author of The Independent Budget. This is the 23nd year AMVETS, the Disabled American Veterans, the Paralyzed Veterans of America, and the Veterans of Foreign Wars have pooled our resources to produce a unique document, one that has stood the test of time.
In developing the Independent Budget, we believe in certain guiding principles. Veterans should not have to wait for benefits to which they are entitled. Veterans must be ensured access to high-quality medical care. Specialized care must remain the focus of VA. Veterans must be guaranteed timely access to the full continuum of health care services, including long-term care. And, veterans must be assured accessible burial in a state or national cemetery in every state.
The VA healthcare system is the best in the country and responsible for great advances in medical science. VHA is uniquely qualified to care for veterans' needs because of its highly specialized experience in treating service-connected ailments. The delivery care system provides a wide array of specialized services to veterans like those with spinal cord injuries, blindness, traumatic brain injury, and post traumatic stress disorder.
Mr. Chairman, I want to thank you for introducing H.R. 1016, the Veterans Health Care Budget Reform and Transparency Act of 2009. Providing sufficient, predictable and timely funding for VA health care will go a long way in ensuring our veterans receive the care they need from fully staffed, state of the art VA medical centers. I also want to thank each member of the committee who has co-sponsored this act, and for those how still have questions I look forward to further discussions so we can solve the problems of the current funding system.
As a partner of the Independent Budget, AMVETS devotes a majority of its time with the concerns of the National Cemetery Administration (NCA) and I would like to speak directly to the issues and concerns surrounding NCA.
The National Cemetery Administration
The Department of Veterans Affairs National Cemetery Administration (NCA) currently maintains more than 2.9 million gravesites at 125 national cemeteries in 39 states and Puerto Rico. Of these cemeteries, 65 will be open to all interments; 20 will accept only cremated remains and family members of those already interred; and 40 will only perform interments of family members in the same gravesite as a previously deceased family member. NCA also maintains 33 soldiers' lots and monument sites. All told, NCA manages 17,000 acres, half of which are developed.
VA estimates that about 27 million veterans are alive today. They include veterans from World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the Global War on Terrorism, as well as peacetime veterans. With the anticipated opening of the new national cemeteries, annual interments are projected to increase from approximately 100,000 in 2007 to 111,000 in 2009. Historically, 12 percent of veterans opt for burial in a state or national cemetery.
The most important obligation of the NCA is to honor the memory f America's brave men and women who served in the armed forces. Therefore, the purpose of these cemeteries as national shrines is one of the NCA's top priorities. Many of the individual cemeteries within the system are steeped in history, and the monuments, markers, grounds, and related memorial tributes represent the very foundation of the United States. With this understanding, the grounds, including monuments and individual sites of interment, represent a national treasure that deserves to be protected and cherished.
The Independent Budget veterans service organizations (IBVSOs) would like to acknowledge the dedication and commitment of the NCA staff who continue to provide the highest quality of service to veterans and their families. We call on the Administration and Congress to provide the resources needed to meet the changing and critical nature of NCA's mission and fulfill the nation's commitment to all veterans who have served their country honorably and faithfully.
In FY 2008, $195 was million appropriated for the operations and maintenance of NCA, $28.2 million over the administration's request, with only $220,000 in carryover. NCA awarded 39 of the 42 minor construction projects that were in the operating plan. The State Cemetery Grants Service awarded $37.3 million of the $39.5 million that was appropriated. This carryover was caused by the cancellation of a contract that NCA had estimated to be $2 million but the contractor's estimation was considerable higher. Additionally, $25 million was invested in the National Shrine Commitment.
NCA has done an exceptional job of providing burial options for 88 percent of all veterans who fall within the 170,000 veterans within a 75 mile radius threshold model. However, under this model, no new geographical area will become eligible for a National Cemetery until 2015. St. Louis, Mo. will, at that time, meet the threshold due to the closing of Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in 2017. Analysis shows that the five areas with the highest veteran population will not become eligible for a National Cemetery because they will not reach the 170,000 threshold.
NCA has spent years developing and maintaining a cemetery system based on a growing veteran population. In 2010 our veteran population will begin to decline. Because of this downward trend, a new threshold model must be developed to ensure more of our veterans will have reasonable access to their burial benefits. Reducing the mile radius to 65 miles would reduce the veteran population that is served from 90 percent to 82.4 percent, and reducing the radius to 55 miles would reduce the served population to 74.1 percent. Reducing the radius alone to 55 miles would only bring two geographical areas in to 170,000 population threshold in 2010, and only a few areas into this revised model by 2030.
Several geographical areas will remain unserved if the population threshold is not reduced. Lowering the population threshold to 100,000 veterans would immediately make several areas eligible for a National Cemetery regardless of any change to the mile radius threshold. A new threshold model must be implemented so more of our veterans will have access to this earned benefit.
National Cemetery Administration (NCA) Accounts
The Independent Budget recommends an operations budget of $241.5 million for the NCA for fiscal year 2010 so it can meet the increasing demands of interments, gravesite maintenance, and related essential elements of cemetery operations.
The NCA is responsible for five primary missions: (1) to inter, upon request, the remains of eligible veterans and family members and to permanently maintain gravesites; (2) to mark graves of eligible persons in national, state, or private cemeteries upon appropriate application; (3) to administer the state grant program in the establishment, expansion, or improvement of state veterans cemeteries; (4) to award a presidential certificate and furnish a United States flag to deceased veterans; and (5) to maintain national cemeteries as national shrines sacred to the honor and memory of those interred or memorialized.
The national cemetery system continues to be seriously challenged. Though there has been progress made over the years, the NCA is still struggling to remove decades of blemishes and scars from military burial grounds across the country. Visitors to many national cemeteries are likely to encounter sunken graves, misaligned and dirty grave markers, deteriorating roads, spotty turf and other patches of decay that have been accumulating for decades. If the NCA is to continue its commitment to ensure national cemeteries remain dignified and respectful settings that honor deceased veterans and give evidence of the nation's gratitude for their military service, there must be a comprehensive effort to greatly improve the condition, function, and appearance of all our national cemeteries.
Therefore, in accordance with "An Independent Study on Improvements to Veterans Cemeteries," which was submitted to Congress in 2002, The Independent Budget again recommends Congress establish a five-year, $250 million "National Shrine Initiative" to restore and improve the condition and character of NCA cemeteries as part of the FY2008 operations budget. Volume 2 of the Independent Study provides a system wide, comprehensive review of the conditions at 119 national cemeteries. It identifies 928 projects across the country for gravesite renovation, repair, upgrade, and maintenance. These projects include cleaning, realigning, and setting headstones and markers; cleaning, caulking, and grouting the stone surfaces of columbaria; and maintaining the surrounding walkways. Grass, shrubbery, and trees in burial areas and other land must receive regular care as well. Additionally, cemetery infrastructure, i.e. buildings, grounds, walks, and drives must be repaired as needed. According to the Study, these project recommendations were made on the basis of the existing condition of each cemetery after taking into account the cemetery's age, its burial activity, burial options and maintenance programs.
The IBVSOs is encouraged that $25 million was set aside for the National Shrine Commitment for FY 07 and 08. The NCA has done an outstanding job thus far in improving the appearance of our national cemeteries, but we have a long way to go to get us where we need to be. By enacting a five-year program with dedicated funds and an ambitious schedule, the national cemetery system can fully serve all veterans and their families with the utmost dignity, respect, and compassion.
In addition to the management of national cemeteries, the NCA is responsible for the Memorial Program Service. The Memorial Program Service provides lasting memorials for the graves of eligible veterans and honors their service through Presidential Memorial Certificates. Public Laws 107-103 and 107-330 allow for a headstone or marker for the graves of veterans buried in private cemeteries who died on or after September 11, 2001. Prior to this change, the NCA could provide this service only to those buried in national or state cemeteries or to unmarked graves in private cemeteries. Public Law 110-157 gives VA authority to provide a medallion to be attached to the headstone or marker of veterans who are buried in a private cemetery. This benefit is available to veterans in lieu of a government furnished headstone or marker.
The IBVSOs call on the Administration and Congress to provide the resources required to meet the critical nature of the NCA mission and fulfill the nation's commitment to all veterans who have served their country so honorably and faithfully. Congress should provide NCA with $241.5 million for fiscal year 2010 to offset the costs related to increased workload, additional staff needs, general inflation and wage increases and Congress should include as part of the NCA appropriation $50 million for the first stage of a $250 million five-year program to restore and improve the condition and character of existing NCA cemeteries.
The State Cemetery Grants Program
The State Cemeteries Grant Program faces the challenge of meeting a growing interest from states to provide burial services in areas that are not currently served. The intent of the SCGP is to develop a true complement to, not a replacement for, our federal system of national cemeteries. With the enactment of the Veterans Benefits Improvements Act of 1998, the NCA has been able to strengthen its partnership with states and increase burial service to veterans, especially those living in less densely populated areas not currently served by a national cemetery. Currently there are 55 state and tribal government cemetery construction grant pre-applications, 34 of which have the required state matching funds necessary totaling $120.7 million.
The Independent Budget recommends that Congress appropriate $52 million for SCGP for FY 2010. This funding level would allow SCGP to establish six new state cemeteries that will provide burial options for 179,000 veterans who live in a region that currently has no reasonably accessible state or national cemetery.
In 1973 NCA established a burial allowance that provided partial reimbursements for eligible funeral and burial costs. The current payment is $2,000 for burial expenses for service-connected (SC) death, $300 for non-service-connected (NSC) deaths, and $300 for plot allowance. At its inception, the payout covered 72 percent of the funeral cost for a service-connected death, 22 percent for a non-service-connected death, and 54 percent of the burial plot cost. In 2007 these benefits eroded to 23 percent, 4 percent, and 14 percent respectively. It is time to bring these benefits back to their original value.
Burial allowance was first introduced in 1917 to prevent veterans from being buried in potters' fields. In 1923 the allowance was modified. The benefit was determined by a means test, and then in 1936 the allowance was changed again, removing the means test. In its early history, the burial allowance was paid to all veterans, regardless of the service-connectivity of their death. In 1973 the allowance was modified to reflect the relationship of their death as service connected or not.
The plot allowance was introduced in 1973 as an attempt to provide a plot benefit for veterans who did not have reasonable access to a national cemetery. Although neither the plot allowance nor the burial allowances were intended to cover the full cost of a civilian burial in a private cemetery, the increase in the benefit's value indicates the intent to provide a meaningful benefit by adjusting for inflation.
The national average cost for a funeral and burial in a private cemetery has reached $8,555, and the cost for a burial plot is $2,133. At the inception of the benefit the average costs were $1,116 and $278 respectively. While the cost of a funeral has increased by nearly seven times the burial benefit has only increased by 2.5 times. To bring both burial allowances and the plot allowance back to its 1973 value, the SC benefit payment will be $6,160, the NSC benefit value payment will be $1,918, and the plot allowance will increase to $1,150. Readjusting the value of these benefits, under the current system, will increase the obligations from $70.1 million to $335.1 million per year.
Based on accessibility and the need to provide quality burial benefits, The Independent Budget recommends that VA separate burial benefits into two categories: veterans who live inside the VA accessibility threshold model and those who live outside the threshold. For those veterans who live outside the threshold, the SC burial benefit should be increased to $6,160, NSC veteran's burial benefit should be increased to $1,918, and plot allowance should increase to $1,150 to match the original value of the benefit. For veterans who live within reasonable accessibility to a state or national cemetery that is able to accommodate burial needs, but the veteran would rather be buried in a private cemetery the burial benefit should be adjusted. These veterans' burial benefits will be based on the average cost for VA to conduct a funeral. The benefit for a SC burial will be $2,793, the amount provided for a NSC burial will be $854, and the plot allowance will be $1,150. This will provide a burial benefit at equal percentages, but based on the average cost for a VA funeral and not on the private funeral cost that will be provided for those veterans who do not have access to a state or national cemetery.
The recommendations of past legislation provided an increased benefit for all eligible veterans but it currently fails to reach the intent of the original benefit. The new model will provide a meaningful benefit to those veterans whose access to a state or national cemetery is restricted as well as provides an improved benefit for eligible veterans who opt for private burial. Congress should increase the plot allowance from $300 to $1,150 for all eligible veterans and expand the eligibility for the plot allowance for all veterans who would be eligible for burial in a national cemetery, not just those who served during wartime. Congress should divide the burial benefits into two categories: veterans within the accessibility model and veterans outside the accessibility model. Congress should increase the service-connected burial benefit from $2,000 to $6,160 for veterans outside the radius threshold and $2,793 for veterans inside the radius threshold. Congress should increase the non-service-connected burial benefit from $300 to $1,918 for veterans outside the radius threshold and $854 for veterans inside the radius threshold. Congress should enact legislation to adjust these burial benefits for inflation annually.
The NCA honors veterans with a final resting place that commemorates their service to this nation. More than 2.8 million soldiers who died in every war and conflict are honored by burial in a VA national cemetery. Each Memorial Day and Veterans Day we honor the last full measure of devotion they gave for this country. Our national cemeteries are more than the final resting place of honor for our veterans; they are hallowed ground to those who died in our defense, and a memorial to those who survived.
Mr. Chairman, this concludes my testimony. I thank you again for the privilege to present our views, and I would be pleased to answer any questions you might have.
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