ROBERT J. EPLEY
ASSOCIATE DEPUTY UNDER SECRETARY FOR POLICY
AND PROGRAM MANAGEMENT
VETERANS BENEFITS ADMINISTRATION
SUBCOMMITTEE ON BENEFITS
HOUSE COMMITTEE ON VETERANS' AFFAIRS
July 18, 2002
Thank you, Mr. Chairman, for the privilege to appear today before this Subcommittee. I appreciate this opportunity to inform you of the Department of Veterans Affairs' continuing delivery of services and benefits to our military members.
The overall mission of transition services delivery becomes even more important as America's Attack on Terrorism continues. Operation Enduring Freedom brings a new group of veterans - Reservists and Guard members called to active duty. Department of Defense ( DoD) reports show that over 85,000 troops are currently activated.
Before I address VA's role in the Transition Assistance Program ( TAP) and Disabled Transition Assistance Program ( DTAP) as authorized under title 10, chapter 58, United States Code, I would like to summarize what VA is doing to support military members assigned to Operation Enduring Freedom, to help family members of military personnel who die on active duty, and to assist servicemembers that are severely injured in America's Attack on Terrorism.
Beginning with the September 11th attack on the Pentagon, VA has changed its approach to assisting family members of servicemembers who die on active duty. Our goal now is to process each in-service death Disability and Indemnity Compensation ( DIC) claim within 48 hours of receipt. To do this, we are centralizing processing of DIC in-service death claims to the Philadelphia Regional Office and Insurance Center. We have been working with the military Casualty Assistance Board and its representatives to streamline the process by using a DIC Worksheet combined with the DD Form 1300, Report of Casualty, to process the claim. No longer will a surviving spouse or dependent child of an in-service casualty be required to fill out lengthy, cumbersome forms. This new process will be activated in August 2002.
The Washington Regional Office ( WRO) has established a strong working relationship with the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, where many of those severely injured in Afghanistan are being returned for continued medical treatment. Under this program, locally known as Operation Early Intervention, a WRO representative visits Walter Reed on a weekly basis to interview patients and discuss VA benefits and services. Particular emphasis is placed on services available through the VA's Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment Program.
Regional offices have been reminded of the importance of working with local Reserve and National Guard Units activated in support of Operation Enduring Freedom to ensure these individuals understand the benefits to which they are rightfully entitled under title 38, United States Code.
We are proud of what we are doing and what we have accomplished to assist servicemembers and their families involved in Operation Enduring Freedom.
As in past VA testimony about our role in TAP, we wish to mention the broader efforts of VBA related to our full military services initiatives and programs. Since the enactment of Public Law 101-510, The National Defense Authorization Act of 1991, a full program of military services has been implemented with very positive results.
We have portrayed our efforts - past, present, and future - as broader than TAP/ DTAP. Rather, we have defined VBA's "military services program" as encompassing several key outreach efforts: TAP and DTAP jointly sponsored by VA/ DOL/ DoD, military separation and retirement services programs, military medical facilities and Physical Evaluation Boards, special outreach to Reserve and National Guard Units, Casualty Assistance Services, and various other military liaison activities. This broader definition was established so that, from a policy and program management standpoint, we recognize the totality of our duties to individual servicemembers and the larger military communities.
Military Services Coordinators are assigned at each VA regional office, and, where the military population dictates, such as in the Virginia Tidewater Area, additional coordinators are in place. During FY 2002 through May, military services coordinators conducted 3,261 briefings attended by 114,352 active duty personnel and their family members, and personally interviewed 60,074 servicemembers in conjunction with these briefings.
In 1993 VBA expanded its military services program overseas. The Overseas Military Services Program operates under a separate Memorandum of Agreement between VA and DoD through which VA provides staff, while DoD provides funding and logistical support. VA military services coordinators are based in Germany, Italy, Korea, Japan, and Okinawa covering military facilities in those countries as well as providing itinerant services to Spain, England, The Azores, and Iceland. These are 3 to 5-month rotational tours with employees selected from regional offices throughout the country. A VA representative also travels quarterly to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to brief and assist servicemembers assigned to that facility.
During 11 months of coverage in FY 2001, 574 briefings were conducted for 13, 399 military personnel and 6,395 interviews were conducted through the Overseas Military Services Program. FY 2001 statistics are cited because only limited coverage has been available this fiscal year. VA and DoD jointly agreed that, because of the security and other logistical difficulties following September 11th, deployment of the overseas military services coordinators would be delayed, and the first group did not begin services overseas until late January 2002.
To lend additional strength and quality to our military services efforts, a specially designed training program was held in August 2000 for VBA military services coordinators. The Compensation and Pension Service coordinated this training and presenters included not only VA program representatives but also officials of the Departments of Labor and Defense and the military service departments. Topics covered a wide range of programs including VA benefits and services, Reserve Affairs, Retirement Services, Casualty Assistance, and others. Participants also received training specifically designed to assist them in improving the quality of their public presentations. To support military services coordinators and to keep them fully aware of legislative changes, policy revisions, etc., a Military Services Program Intranet Page has been activated. Military services coordinators must be flexible in their presentations depending on their audience and the time allotted for the presentation. For example, a session conducted for officer retirees probably would focus more on compensation than education; a group of young, first enlistment, separatees are likely to be more interested in education than life insurance. A standardized briefing presentation is available that military services coordinators can use in tailoring the presentation to the audience they are addressing. Standardized Benefits Facts Sheets have also been developed for distribution during military services briefings.
VBA's basic role in TAP is information dissemination: providing servicemembers not only with information on the wide range of benefits offered by the Veterans Benefits Administration, but also on their eligibility for medical care and access to the services of the Veterans Health Administration. But, there are other, equally important, coordinated efforts between VA and DoD that have resulted in more efficient processing of compensation claims generated through TAP and DTAP, thereby providing additional support to transitioning service men and women. The first, and one of the most important efforts, was the transfer of service medical records from the military to the VA initiated in the early 1990s with full implementation through the establishment of the VBA Records Management Center in June 1995.
Another jointly sponsored VA/DOD program, Benefits Delivery at Discharge ( BDD), was implemented in 1998. BDD has taken our military services program one step further by processing claims for service-connected compensation prior to discharge. As soon as we receive the veteran's military discharge certificate we can authorize payment. There are currently 47 VA regional offices in 40 states plus the District of Columbia and 129 military installations actively participating in the BDD initiative. This includes 42 Air Force, 36 Navy, 32 Army (including 2 overseas sites), 10 Coast Guard, and 8 Marine Corps sites, and 1 mixed command. In FY 2001, military bases where BDD was in operation accounted for 72% of all separations in the USA.
Almost 23,000 BDD claims were finalized in FY 2001 and over 6,200 were finished in FY 2002 through May. The VA regional offices involved in the program report that veterans have been very satisfied with the improved services.
Section 201, Public Law 107-103, authorized us to establish VA offices at military installations outside of the United States. Two BDD sites have been opened overseas -- the first in Korea in May 2001, and the second in Germany in October 2001.
VBA has plans for expansion of the pre-discharge initiation to additional military facilities. However, further BDD expansion will not be possible until regional office claims processing workload and new employee training has been adequately addressed.
DTAP is a component of the larger TAP initiative that focuses on disabled servicemembers. Potential DTAP participants are identified during TAP sessions or by service departments from service men and women who either are awaiting separation due to disability or who are retiring with disability claims. Self-referrals and requests for Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment (VR&E) assistance from a disabled servicemember may come from various other sources within the military or VA. Through BDD we can reach severely disabled servicemembers who are discharged following a Physical Evaluation Board (PEB) and transferred for further medical treatment to VA or private medical facilities.
DTAP provides in-depth information about services to restore suitable employment and independent living through VBA's vocational rehabilitation program to disabled service men and women.
Both the DTAP and BDD programs allow VR&Estaff to begin counseling, vocational assessment, transferable skills and job analysis, training choices, and to address medical needs before the disabled member separates or retires. Such early intervention has a positive impact on an individual's adjustment to disability and attainment of employment.
Military services coordinators present VR&Eprogram information to the participants of the overall TAP session in many locations. Either the military services coordinator or a VR&ECounselor assists individuals with the application process including, obtaining a copy of the Service Medical Records.
As resources permit, VR&Epersonnel conduct specialized DTAP presentations for servicemembers at military medical facilities and other locations and provide one-on-one counseling. In geographically remote locations, or in cases where single individuals are separating from the military, we provide DTAP service through our Access Initiative through contractors or through use of Web based electronic presentations. Additionally, we coordinate claims processing affecting a servicemember who is transferring from a duty station to his or her home state to ensure continuity of service.
VR&Ecounselors provide vocational and educational counseling services under Public Law 102-16 to separating servicemembers. This vocational educational counseling program allows VR&Eto incorporate a comparative analysis of transferable military skills, education, and training and civilian occupational and training choices, as well as preparation for vocational rehabilitation planning once entitlement is established. In the past 18 months, VR&Ehas provided vocational and educational counseling to over 10,500 service men and women under Public Law 102-16.
We have created Web tools that are instrumental in the TAP/ DTAP process, such as an on-line Military-to-Civilian Transferable Skills Identifier (TSI) that allows an individual to obtain an occupational report. Since activation in July 2001, the TSI has received over 25,000 hits.
To implement, section 203 of Public Law 107-103, we have developed and initiated distribution of an outreach publication on the Licensing and Certification test benefit (a one-page trifold pamphlet, VA Pamphlet 22-02-1, "A New VA Benefit"). As a result of Public Law 106-419, VA is now authorized to reimburse eligible VA beneficiaries for the cost of taking examinations needed for licensure or certification in professional or vocational fields where credentials are necessary.
To be effective in reaching the target audience, we've been working closely with the Department of Labor. We are sending supplies to each Department of Labor regional VETS (Veterans' Employment and Training Service) office, so that they may distribute information materials and conduct discussions regarding VA benefits at TAP and DTAP briefings and upon other contacts with veterans and potentially eligible dependents. (Dependents eligible for chapter 35 may receive the Licensing and Certification test benefit.)
We are also sending supplies of the pamphlet to organizations that offer tests for licenses or certifications. Our regional offices supply our military service coordinators stationed at military bases with copies of the pamphlet for distribution and discussion at TAP and DTAP briefings. Our Education Liaison Representatives (ELRs), stationed in each of our regional offices, also provide the pamphlets to the State Approving Agencies ( SAAs) and to schools and training facilities in each state.
The SAAs have been very helpful since enactment of the Licensing and Certification test benefit and have become more interested in assisting VA with information dissemination. Public Law 107-103 now requires SAAs to assist VA in outreach. Therefore, each SAA will develop an implementation plan as part of the FY 2003 contract administration process.
Interest in Licensing and Certification test reimbursement is growing. Through June 2002, more than 200 organizations with over 1,300 tests have been approved for the licensing and certification test benefit. From 400 to over 800 payments have been issued during each of the last few months. Our partnerships with Department of Labor and SAAs will insure that separating servicemembers are aware of the full range of VA education and training benefits available to them as well as licensing and certification test reimbursement.
We continue to have a close and effective working relationship with DOL and DoD in supporting TAP & DTAP, but we have more to accomplish to assure that separatees get appropriate assistance. Recently separated veterans, especially younger combat-arms veterans, continue to experience disproportionate rates and duration of unemployment compared to their non-veteran peers. As reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the annual average median duration of unemployment in 2001 for 20 to 24-year old male veterans was substantially longer (7.1 weeks vs. 5.5 weeks) than for non-veterans in the same age cohort. Further, the average annual unemployment rate in 2001 for 20 to 24-year old veterans continued to be higher (9.6 percent vs. 8.2 percent) than similar age non-veterans. While we will continue to work closely with our sister Departments, through TAP as well as other VA programs, to facilitate the transition of our country's young men and women into a productive civilian life, we believe that enactment of the Administration's proposal, HR-4879, would substantially enhance our ability to better serve the transitional needs our Nation's service members during their transition to civilian life.
We want to assure you, Mr. Chairman, of our continuing commitment to the men and women who are serving the Nation in the Armed Forces. We are grateful for the opportunity to work with these men and women who are our newest veterans and to assist them in their transition to civilian life. We are equally appreciative to have Labor, Defense, the military service departments, service organizations, and a host of other as partners in the total effort to assist those who have served so well.
Mr. Chairman, this concludes my testimony. I will be pleased to respond to any questions you or the Subcommittee members may have.