UNDER SECRETARY FOR BENEFITS
DEPARTMENT OF VETERANS AFFAIRS
HOUSE COMMITTEE ON VETERANS' AFFAIRS
SUBCOMMITTEE ON BENEFITS
July 12, 2000
Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee, thank you for the opportunity to testify today on H.R. 3256, the "Veterans’ Right to Know Act." H.R. 3256 would require the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to provide a veteran or dependent with information concerning eligibility for Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) benefits and health care services when he or she first applies for any VA benefit, including burial or related benefits. The information the Secretary would be required to provide would include information on how to apply for benefits for which the veteran or dependent may be eligible and information particular to members of distinct beneficiary populations.
H.R. 3256 would also require the Secretary to prepare an annual plan for the conduct of outreach activities. The Secretary would be required to include in the plan efforts to identify veterans who are not otherwise enrolled or registered with VA for benefits or services and provisions for informing veterans and dependents of any changes in benefit programs or health care eligibility. In preparing the plan, the Secretary would be required to consult with outside individuals and organizations that could assist veterans in adjusting to a self-sufficient civilian life.
The ultimate objective of H.R. 3256 appears to be to assure that VA outreach programs fully inform veterans and dependents of benefits available to them. Although we fully support this objective, we do not support enactment of H.R. 3256 because we believe that the bill is unnecessary to its achievement and in many ways would duplicate VA’s existing outreach and other information efforts. Although VA continues to improve, we believe that the Department has made considerable progress in reaching out to veterans. As I have said before, we owe veterans and their families the best service we can provide in the most sensitive, caring way possible to ensure that they receive benefits in a manner befitting their service to our Nation. My testimony will summarize VA’s current outreach efforts.
Outreach Initiatives - In General
VA’s current outreach efforts include informing veterans and their dependents and survivors about VA benefits and services to which they may be entitled, as well as educating other agencies and organizations involved in helping veterans and dependents and survivors. VA conducts both on-going outreach programs and one-time efforts. Some outreach programs are developed for national implementation and some are developed locally to fit the needs of particular communities.
In late October 1999, the Demand Management Staff was created within the Compensation and Pension Service with one section specifically assigned the responsibility for developing outreach-program guidance, providing program oversight, and evaluating the effectiveness of outreach programs. Outreach specialists have also been assigned within other VBA business lines.
Outreach is a cooperative effort among the VBA business lines (Compensation and Pension, Education, Loan Guaranty, Vocational Rehabilitation & Employment, and Insurance) and among VBA, the Veterans Health Administration, National Cemetery Administration, and staff offices such as the Centers for Women and Minority Veterans and the Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs. Some programs are jointly sponsored by federal agencies. For example, the Departments of Defense (DoD), Labor, and Veterans Affairs jointly sponsor the Transition Assistance Program (TAP) for separating and retiring servicemembers. Veterans Service Organizations (VSOs) and state and county veterans affairs officers, community agencies, and organizations also play a vital role in VBA’s outreach program.
Under Title VII, Service Disabled Veterans, Section 709 of Public Law 105-135, the Small Business Re-authorization Act of 1997, the Secretary is to engage in discussions with the Administrator of the Small Business Administration (SBA) and the Assistant Secretary of Labor for Veterans’ Employment and Training to develop and implement a program of comprehensive outreach to assist eligible veterans in the areas of business training and management assistance, employment and relocation counseling, and dissemination of information on veterans benefits and veterans entitlements. Under section 302, Public Law 106-50, the Veterans Entrepreneurship and Small Business Development Act of 1999, the Secretary entered into a partnership agreement with the SBA and the Association of the Small Business Development Centers to provide entrepreneurial assistance to veterans to include service-disabled veterans. Under the same Act as prescribed in section 604, the Secretary is actively engaged in discussions with the SBA Administrator and the Secretary of Labor to enter into another partnership agreement to coordinate vocational rehabilitation services, technical and managerial assistance, and financial assistance to veterans, including service-disabled veterans seeking to form or expand a small business concern.
VA uses various media, such as toll-free telephone service, the Internet, kiosks, special mailings, news releases, public service announcements, pamphlets, fact sheets, award letters, town hall meetings, benefits seminars, and personal benefits counseling, to disseminate information about VA benefits and claims assistance.
VA uses special mailings to advise veterans and dependents of legislated benefit changes, such as the letter released in 1997 to over 350,000 women veterans advising them of the availability of counseling and treatment for sexual trauma or personal assault. Compensation and pension award letters contain information about other VA benefits to which a veteran may be entitled.
VA also provides information about and, in many instances certification for, other federal, state, and local benefits, such as employment, civil service preference, and state tax abatement. We are developing an on-line State Benefits System that will provide information on all State benefits including the benefit description and eligibility criteria. When completed, this system will be available to all VBA personnel and the general public.
Outreach Initiatives – Active-duty Personnel
More specifically, VA provides all active-duty personnel with information about VA benefits and services. Upon entering active duty, each servicemember is required to complete a Servicemember’s Group Life Insurance (SGLI) election form. The SGLI election form includes a description of VA benefits. Under programs currently under way or under development, servicemembers who are enrolled in the Montgomery G.I. Bill program will receive information at particular stages of their military careers on the basic eligibility and entitlement criteria, benefit rates and method of payment, and points of contact, including Internet addresses and toll-free telephone numbers for VA. Fifty-five percent of the eligible veteran population that has participated in the MGIB program since its inception has used some portion of available MGIB benefits. They will also be reminded of the availability of VA guaranteed home loans. In addition, VA representatives provide briefings upon request from military officials to explain the home loan benefit to active-duty personnel. There are approximately 3.1 million participants in the program.
Outreach Initiatives – Separating/Retiring Active-duty Personnel
VBA’s military services outreach program offers benefits briefings and counseling to separating/retiring active-duty personnel. These briefings are available through the formal TAP, which is legislatively mandated by title 10, United States Code, and jointly sponsored by the Departments of Defense, Labor, and Veterans Affairs, and through other separation and retirement programs. Servicemembers within 180 days of separation from service attend a transition assistance briefing conducted in a group setting at their military installation. The briefings cover education, home loans, life insurance, vocational rehabilitation, and compensation and pension issues, as well as special issues such as sexual and personal trauma. In conjunction with such briefings, personal counseling may also be provided. During Fiscal Year 1999, about 227,000 servicemembers and dependents attended VA briefings and almost 87,000 personal interviews were conducted with separating or retiring active-duty personnel. Section 1142 of title 10, United States Code, also requires the Secretary of Defense to provide pre-separation counseling to active-duty personnel prior to release. This counseling must be documented in the members' service records and must include a discussion of educational assistance benefits to which the member is entitled under the Montgomery G.I. Bill and a description of available compensation and vocational rehabilitation benefits if the member is being medically separated or retired.
Through the Disabled Transition Assistance Program (DTAP), service members who may be discharged with potential service-connected disabilities are provided specialized counseling on vocational rehabilitation and employment benefits. Over 8,000 Vocational Rehabilitation (Chapter 31) claims were taken during DTAP sessions in FY 1999.
To supplement military services briefings, VA has produced four special information videos for separating active-duty personnel and distributed them to regional offices and military installations in the United States and overseas. The most recent, Taking the Next Step, was released in December 1998.
VBA’s Benefit Delivery at Discharge Program is an outreach and claims processing effort designed to capture as many as possible of the 80,000 separating servicemembers annually who file a disability claim either at separation or within a year of separation. The intent is to provide counseling on all benefits available, take claims, and decide these claims prior to or within 30 days after separation from active duty. Currently there are 34 VA regional offices and 83 military installations in 33 states actively participating in the pre-discharge program. Based on the 3,122 pre-discharge claims completed in the 4th quarter Fiscal Year 1999, it is projected that more than 15,000 pre-discharge claims will be finalized in Fiscal Year 2000.
Outreach Initiatives – Survivors
VBA has designated personnel to work locally with the military Casualty Assistance Officers to offer immediate information and assistance in applying for VA benefits and services to survivors of service members who die on active duty. Also, when a service member has been separated for a service-connected condition and it is anticipated that he or she will die within 6 months of separation, VA, through its imminent death procedures, assists DoD in its efforts to authorize benefits within 24 hours of the service member’s death.
Outreach Initiatives – Discharged Veterans
Upon receipt from DoD of a discharged veteran’s separation document, which VA receives for each discharged servicemember, VA sends a letter to the veteran with a pamphlet summarizing available VA benefits. The veteran is invited to call or visit a local VA regional office for further information and assistance. A follow-up letter is sent 6 months later. In addition, VA sends separate letters, pamphlets, and applications to veterans eligible for educational assistance benefits, and issues information packets and follow-up notices on Veterans’ Group Life Insurance (VGLI) to recently separated veterans. VA intends to extend extra outreach efforts, such as telephone calls and special mailings explaining the availability of VGLI coverage, to severely disabled veterans and to include in such mailings an invitation to apply for disability benefits. During Fiscal Year 1999, over 426,000 general information and education letters and about 340,000 VGLI packets were sent to recently separated veterans.
Outreach Initiatives – Special Populations
VBA has assigned outreach personnel at each of its regional offices to work with special populations such as women veterans, minority veterans, homeless veterans, elderly beneficiaries, and former prisoners of war. These programs have been quite successful in identifying these veterans and assisting them in applying for VA benefits and services.
For example, during FY 1999, homeless veteran outreach coordinators visited about 2,700 shelters, made more than 4,700 contacts with community groups and agencies who provide services to the homeless, and provided personal assistance to over 23,000 homeless veterans. The homeless coordinators, as well as vocational rehabilitation and employment personnel, participate in Stand Downs or benefit fairs during which various free services to homeless veterans are provided. VA participated in 136 Stand Downs run by local coalitions in various cities during 1999. Surveys showed that more than 25,000 veterans and 8,000 members of their families and others in need of assistance attended these events. In addition, special outreach and benefits assistance is provided through funding from VA’s Veterans Health Administration to support 12 VBA counselors as members of VA’s Health Care for Homeless Veterans Program and VA’s Domiciliary Care for Homeless Program.
Additional Outreach Initiatives – Education
In addition to mailing publications regarding education benefits to both active-duty members and recently separated veterans, VA has been enhancing materials on education benefits, producing brochures distributed at education seminars and military installations, working with DoD to provide public service announcements for the Armed Forces Radio and Television Service, providing press releases to veterans service organizations, conducting focus groups, and revising and updating its Internet site. VA also sends letters and applications for benefits to children ages 13, 16, and 18 who are potentially eligible for education benefits and includes in disability and death award letters information notifying potential beneficiaries about education benefits.
Additional Outreach Initiatives – Loan Guaranty
To disseminate additional information on our loan guaranty program, VA encloses fact sheets or pamphlets explaining the loan guaranty benefit with all certificates of eligibility. Other information about the Loan Guaranty Program is provided on an Internet site, which has various links to a host of sources for related information and services. On request, VA will conduct briefings at military bases to explain the loan guaranty benefit to active-duty personnel. In addition, VA provides interactive televised training broadcasts to assist lenders and other program participants in learning about the requirements of the VA home loan program. VA personnel also attend meetings of mortgage and housing industry trade associations to advise them of program changes.
With respect to the Native American Veteran Direct Loan Program (NADLP), VA attends conferences and conventions and provides information and training to tribal organizations and housing entities regarding the availability of the NADLP. In addition, loan guaranty representatives periodically visit all tribes within their jurisdiction to discuss the program with tribal authorities.
Additional Outreach Initiatives – Vocational Rehabilitation & Employment
In addition to the outreach efforts mentioned above with respect to vocational rehabilitation and employment, VA provides letters explaining vocational rehabilitation services to veterans receiving a notice of either a first-time award of VA compensation or an increase in VA compensation. VA also provides guidance and assistance to veterans already in the vocational rehabilitation program. VA has in place a strategy to provide early vocational rehabilitation intervention for active-duty service members who are hospitalized and awaiting discharge because of a severe injury such as a spinal cord injury.
Additional Outreach Initiatives – Insurance
VA notifies veterans of eligibility for Service-Disabled Veterans Insurance (S-DVI) or for Veterans’ Mortgage Life Insurance (VMLI) at the time they are notified of a determination as to a service-connected disability or a grant for specially adapted housing. VBA’s Insurance Service plans to advise recently separated veterans of the opportunity to apply for S-DVI upon receipt of a VA determination as to a service-connected disability and of S-DVI availability if they are on extended SGLI because of a disability. VA informs veterans that S-DVI may not be financially advantageous. In addition, the Insurance Service conducts annual surveys and periodic marketing surveys.
National Cemetery Administration Outreach Initiatives
The National Cemetery Administration (NCA) conducts outreach to inform veterans, veterans service organizations, the general public, and community/business and professional organizations of the various burial benefits VA offers. NCA personnel meet regularly with national service organization leaders, make presentations at national service organization conferences, and establish exhibit booths at national service organization conferences and other major organizational meetings. In addition, NCA has a highly regarded Internet site with interactive electronic mail.
Veterans Health Administration Outreach Initiatives
Significant outreach activities are also currently taking place in connection with enrollment of veterans for health care. In June 1998, to assist veterans with questions regarding eligibility reform policies, a toll-free veteran assistance hotline was established at the Veterans Health Benefits Service Center. To date, the Veteran Health Benefits Service Center has responded to over 567,547 telephonic and web-based inquires from veterans. To inform veterans about eligibility reform and enrollment, VA embarked on a nationwide public relations campaign, which consisted of special mailings, news releases, public service announcements, fact sheets and town hall meetings. Communication efforts are underway to inform veterans about changes in eligibility for medical benefits resulting from Public Law 106-117, the Veterans" Millennium Health Care and Benefits Act. Both the Readjustment Counseling Service (Vet Centers) and the Homeless Veterans Programs conduct continuous outreach activities as part of their mission to identify new eligible veteran beneficiaries.
In addition, VA, either independently or in partnership with other health care organizations, stakeholders, and veterans service organizations, initiates outreach activities to identify veterans and inform them about new diagnostic and treatment programs. For example, this type of outreach program is being conducted to screen and identify veterans who have the Hepatitis C virus. VA is collaborating with the American Liver Foundation, Hepatitis Foundation International, and the veterans organizations. Presentations were made at the annual meeting of Hepatitis Foundation International, at several veterans organization national meetings, and to VA's Council on Minority Veterans. The first meeting of the American Liver Foundation's Veterans Council was held in June 2000 to discuss barriers to outreach and to develop an action plan to overcome these barriers for veterans who are users of the traditional VA system of care and those who are not.
Focusing on veterans means improving how we communicate. VBA’s Reader-Focused Writing (RFW) effort seeks to make our written communications readily understandable. We are rewriting our form letters in plain language. Focus groups show that veterans have a much clearer understanding of these revised letters compared with letters previously sent by VA. This is no small undertaking. The number of documents which must be rewritten runs into the thousands.
In addition to the main toll-free number, 1-800-827-1000, special toll-free service is available to assist in obtaining more specific information on various programs such as compensation, health, education, life insurance, and headstones and markers. For example, the Education Regional Processing Centers and the Regional Loan Centers have special toll-free service and special service is available to Gulf War veterans through the Gulf War Helpline and to the hearing impaired through a Telephone Device for the Deaf toll-free service line. VA also has a toll-free bulletin board, VA ONLINE, which can be reached at 1-800-US1-VETS. VBA completed over 9 million telephone interviews during Fiscal Year 1999.
While we continue to focus on quality and timely processing of claims, we cannot lose sight of the importance of being accessible to veterans and beneficiaries when they place a call to one of our "800" numbers. I am pleased to report that VBA reduced its national blocked call (caller receives a busy signal) rate from 33 percent in February 1999 to 5 percent in February 2000. The improvement was the result of our nationwide implementation of the National Automated Response System (N-ARS). This system provides both veteran-specific interactive voice responses (IVR) from our mainframe computer system in the Hines Data Center, and generic informational messages to answer as many calls as possible with an automated response on a 24-hour basis. The Education and Insurance toll-free numbers offer IVR self-service features which allow veterans to access information in their own accounts and release forms and applications to themselves. Of course, our telephone system also allows callers to speak with VA staff to get answers to more specific questions. These systems provide better access for veterans, not only for compensation and pension benefits, but also for education, insurance, loan guaranty, and vocational rehabilitation benefits.
VBA operates a network of veterans assistance offices throughout the United States in support of its outreach mission. Public contact units exist at VA regional and satellite offices, as well as VA medical facilities, military installations, and itinerant sites. During Fiscal Year 1999, 1.2 million personal interviews were conducted at VA regional and satellite offices, itinerant sites, outreach activities, and VA medical facilities.
The Internet has greatly expanded our ability to reach and assist veterans and their dependents. Through VA websites, veterans and dependents can obtain extensive information about VA benefits, print benefit applications, request additional information, or get assistance with specific claims issuers. VBA's website may be accessed at www.vba.va.gov. All VBA offices are able to communicate with veterans and dependents via e-mail, if requested.
VBA has now developed an electronic version of the basic application for service-connected compensation and non-service-connected pension benefits and vocational rehabilitation. Known as Veterans On-Line Applications (VONAPP), this will allow veterans to access and fill out a claims form on the Internet and file it electronically with a VA regional office. Using "expert system" technology, veterans will be able to complete applications for compensation without detailed knowledge of the program. The beta test of this project began on June 19 at nine Business Process Re-engineering demonstration sites. If testing is successful, VONAPP will be available nationwide in September 2000. We have plans to add the education application shortly thereafter and other applications will be added as needed.
VA currently conducts an annual review of its outreach services program at each regional office. The reviews assess the nature of the services provided to special target populations, the assignment of required coordinators in particular areas, the sufficiency of the level of service delivery to each group, and the actions that have been initiated to correct any noted deficiencies.
These efforts show that we are deeply committed to outreach activities and are working continually to expand and enhance outreach efforts. While current law mandates that the Secretary advise veterans, upon service discharge, of the benefits and services available and distribute full information regarding benefits and services to eligible veterans and dependents, we have undertaken to do more in our outreach efforts. We believe VA’s current outreach efforts serve to notify servicemembers and veterans and their dependents and survivors of the availability of benefits and allow them to make an intelligent assessment as to whether they would benefit by participation in particular programs.
Furthermore, we believe our efforts comply with the intent of the proposed legislation, which is to ensure that veterans and dependents are aware of and understand available benefits and services and are provided timely and appropriate assistance to aid and encourage them in applying for and obtaining such benefits and services for which they may be eligible. We believe that a more targeted approach better serves veterans. Based on the use of our programs, we believe that veterans and their dependents generally are fully aware of the benefits and services available to them. We question the necessity of such a prescriptive mandate as would be imposed by H.R. 3256.
VA also objects specifically to certain provisions of section 2 of the bill. First, we note that VA does not believe that the time of a request for burial or related benefits is the appropriate time to provide a veteran or dependent information concerning eligibility for other benefits and health care services. This is a very sensitive period for grieving family members, and we do not believe the process should be encumbered with requirements for provision of information which the family members may not desire at that time. Second, as written, this section could be read as requiring VA to treat all requests for burial or related benefits as initial applications for dependents’ benefits. Treating all such requests as initial applications for dependents’ benefits, would, in turn, obligate VA to develop a significant number of additional claims, an endeavor which could overwhelm the claims processing system. We believe that the development of these additional claims would not necessarily result in benefit awards and could create a false sense of expectation of entitlement to benefits.
VA’s estimate of the cost of H.R. 3256, which likely would include significant administrative costs, is under development. Because VA’s current outreach and informational efforts are strong and improving, it is unclear whether any marginal benefits from the bill also would justify these increased costs.
Regarding the annual outreach plan, we point out again that VA already makes extensive efforts to identify veterans who are not receiving VA benefits or services. When we identify a group or population that we feel should be specifically targeted, we focus efforts on that group, for example, through town meetings, visits to homeless shelters, or coordination with DoD and other agencies. We have already identified and targeted the following populations: homeless veterans, women veterans, former prisoners of war, elderly veterans, Native American veterans, minority veterans, active-duty service members, and veterans in our medical care system.
In addition, VA is developing a Strategic Plan, which sets forth the long-term course and direction of the Department and includes a long-term strategy concerning access and effective outreach. The long-term strategy makes clear that VA is committed to providing veterans and dependents with easy access to information at a convenient time and place through various media. VA plans to distribute an interim draft strategic plan to stakeholders and will post it on the Internet for review and comments. We believe the development and publication of the Strategic Plan, which will include outreach goals, objectives, and performance measures, provides a better means to promote continuous improvement and success in outreach efforts than the separate annual outreach plan contemplated by H.R. 3256.
Mr. Chairman, this concludes my statement.