STATEMENT OF ROGER R. RAPP
ACTING DIRECTOR OF THE NATIONAL CEMETERY SYSTEM,
DEPARTMENT OF VETERANS AFFAIRS
FOR PRESENTATION BEFORE
THE SUBCOMMITTEE ON BENEFITS,
HOUSE COMMITTEE ON VETERANS' AFFAIRS
April 29, 1998
Thank you, Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee, I am pleased to be here today to share with you the status of operations and activities of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) National Cemetery System (NCS). Your continued support and interest in our national shrines is greatly appreciated. I have a brief oral statement that summarizes my full written statement which I submit for the record.
STEWARDSHIP OF MR. JERRY BOWEN
As you know, Mr. Jerry Bowen retired earlier this month as Director of the National Cemetery System. After five years of faithful and committed service to our Nation’s veterans, he returned to Arkansas. Because of his leadership, NCS is a stronger and more customer- focused organization. He set the example and made sure that all employees understood the mission and goals of NCS. During his stewardship, we have placed increased emphasis on our strategic planning process, implemented visitor comment cards at cemeteries, opened one new cemetery at Tahoma and are progressing with four others, and reengineered the way we provide headstones and markers. Jerry Bowen has left us in a very strong position to continue to be a more effective organization. He will be greatly missed by all in the National Cemetery System, veterans across the country, veteran service organizations, and veterans advocates on Capitol Hill.
The NCS strategic plan was developed through an inclusive planning process. NCS continues to refine and enhance its strategic plan, and a revised strategic plan was developed for the period of 1998-2003. NCS has devolved the strategic planning process to the cemetery level with the development of cemetery business plans at all cemeteries. Plans linked by common goals and outcomes are based on identified requirements and expectations of our customers. NCS is a strong supporter of the development of strategic plans to fulfill the requirements of the Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA).
Further, in the Department’s strategic plan, VA has identified program evaluation as a cornerstone in accomplishing its mission to "Honor, Care for and Compensate Veterans." As one of VA’s ten business lines, Burial Benefits and Services will be included in the formal program evaluation process to revalidate program intent and ensure that outcomes and results can be and are evaluated. As part of this process, VA employees, the Congress, Veterans Service Organizations, and others will be consulted beginning in May 1998. These program evaluations will provide information necessary to determine the appropriate type and level of NCS benefits and services for veterans in the twenty-first century.
PROJECTED WORKLOAD INCREASES
Our strategic planning process gives full consideration to veteran demographic data. During the next decade, we face the challenge of providing for a rapidly aging veteran population. Annual veteran deaths are expected to increase 14 percent from 525,200 in 1996 to 601,200 in 2003. Based on the 1990 census, annual veteran deaths are expected to peak at 620,000 in 2008. As the number of veteran deaths rises, NCS projects increases in the number of annual interments from 71,786 in 1996 to 104,900 in 2008. During this time, the total number of graves maintained is projected to go from 2.1 million in 1996 to 3.1 million in 2008.
NCS maintains an extensive infrastructure associated with our 115 national cemeteries, many of which were established during the Civil War and are on the National Register of Historic Places. Maintenance and repair of our 400-plus buildings and ten thousand acres of land include projects to maintain and repair roads, walks, fences, gates, roofs, walls, and irrigation and electrical systems. The need to maintain the infrastructure is one of our greatest challenges, and we are committed to maintaining our cemeteries in a manner befitting national shrines.
BURIAL OPTIONS FOR VETERANS – NCS’s THREE-PRONGED APPROACH
NCS’s strategic plan focuses on a three-pronged approach to meet the burial needs of our Nation’s veterans: 1) opening new national cemeteries; 2) extending the service life of existing cemeteries by expansion, where feasible; and 3) enhancing our partnership with the States through the state cemetery grant program.
STATUS OF NEW NATIONAL CEMETERIES
I am pleased to report that VA opened one of five new national cemeteries, Tahoma National Cemetery, near Seattle in September 1997. We are progressing in the construction of new national cemeteries in Albany, Cleveland, Chicago, and Dallas/Ft. Worth. The opening of these five new VA national cemeteries within three years will be unprecedented since the Civil War.
EXPANSION OF EXISTING CEMETERIES
Another strategy for fulfilling NCS’s mission of providing burial space for veterans is to expand existing cemeteries by: (1) developing available land within existing cemeteries;
(2) acquiring adjacent land; and, (3) developing additional capabilities for interment of cremated remains.
Developing Additional Burial Space Within Existing Cemeteries
Fifty percent of NCS’s 10,000 acres of land is currently undeveloped, providing the potential for more than 1.6 million additional gravesites. We have identified 36 projects for construction within the next five years to develop this acreage and expand these cemeteries. Many of these projects are substantial. For example, the FY 1998 appropriations bill includes major gravesite development projects at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery and at the National Memorial Cemetery of Arizona.
Acquiring Adjacent Land
Expansion on land adjacent to existing national cemeteries is another very cost-effective option. The supporting infrastructure already exists, including: staff; equipment; administration and maintenance buildings; and utilities. Many of those 36 projects mentioned previously are developing land which was acquired by donation, transfer or purchase. Within the last five years (1993 to present), we have acquired nearly 200 acres adjacent to existing national cemeteries. Land acquisitions are currently in process or being discussed at ten national cemeteries to ensure uninterrupted service delivery.
Developing Additional Capabilities for the Interment of Cremated Remains
The provision of in-ground cremation sites is an efficient use of existing lands. Also, construction of columbaria can be an efficient use of limited space in geographic areas where there is significant customer demand for cremation services. We currently have ten national cemeteries with established columbaria and will continue to evaluate other possible locations. All new cemetery construction plans provide for columbaria as a burial option, and the majority of NCS’s gravesite expansion projects now include some provision for cremated remains. For instance, the recent expansion project at Houston National Cemetery included the construction of 5,000 columbaria niches. The new development at Willamette National Cemetery also included nearly 5,000 columbaria niches.
The use of columbaria has also drawn the interest of Members of Congress. In the
FY 1998 appropriation bill, Congressional earmarks provided for columbaria expansion at two sites: (1) the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific (Punchbowl) in Hawaii; and (2) the National Memorial Cemetery of Arizona. In addition, the current FY 1999 President’s budget request includes $6 million each for Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery and Florida National Cemetery columbaria projects.
As we continue to look to the future, we are evaluating the need for columbaria projects at 15 cemeteries in the next five years. Although casket and in-ground cremation burials are preferred by most NCS customers, data show that cremation burials are becoming increasingly popular, and NCS will continue to consider columbaria where appropriate. However, we do not feel they are necessary at all existing national cemeteries. In addition, another key element in our planning for columbaria, as well as other cemetery development projects, is to assess if the burial needs of veterans are being or will be met by state veterans cemeteries.
NCS’s PARTNERSHIP WITH STATES
The National Cemetery System prides itself on developing a continued partnership with the states to provide burial services to the veterans of our Nation. The State Cemetery Grants Program allows VA to help serve veterans in less densely populated areas of our country. It is a true complement to, and not a replacement for, the National Cemetery System, with both approaches being used to construct new cemeteries to serve veterans.
Since 1980 VA, through the State Cemetery Grants Service, has awarded 128 grants totaling more than $58 million. The grants have been used to assist 37 state veterans cemeteries which provided nearly 12,000 burials last fiscal year. Two more new state cemeteries are now under construction and five are in the design phase. Grants are expected to be awarded later this year to support construction of the five new cemeteries now in the design phase. In addition, states have submitted applications for four more new state cemeteries.
To strengthen our partnership and increase burial service delivery to veterans, VA has proposed legislation to enhance the State Cemetery Grants Program. The legislation would revise the funding formula for the State Cemetery Grants Program to authorize VA to fund 100 percent of the cost of construction and initial equipment costs associated with establishment, expansion or improvement of a state veterans cemetery. This change would improve the ability of states to obtain Federal funds for establishing complete and fully equipped cemeteries for veterans. With this additional incentive, we hope that additional burial space could be provided to our Nation’s veterans through this enhanced Federal/State partnership program. We currently have several applications in anticipation of enactment from states who are interested in the 100 percent grants proposal, and should Congress enact the proposal, we expect that interest in the program would grow. I hope, Mr. Chairman, the Committee will move swiftly and enact this worthwhile proposal.
REORGANIZATION OF MEMORIAL PROGRAMS SERVICE
As part of the Vice President’s National Performance Review effort, NCS’s Memorial Programs Service (MPS), which is expected to provide more than 300,000 headstones and markers in FY 1998, was reorganized and decentralized, moving a number of functions from VA Headquarters in Washington, D.C., to NCS-owned sites. The three new satellite sites are Nashville, TN, Fort Leavenworth, KS, and Indiantown Gap, PA. Indiantown Gap was opened in February 1998. Our reengineered, streamlined approach in processing headstone and marker applications will improve our ability to meet our projected annual demand of approximately 300,000.
In the past year, MPS business processes have been redesigned and moved to a total case management system for processing headstone and marker applications. Our automated systems were also reengineered to support this change. The new Automated Monument Application System (AMAS) is faster, has enhanced reporting capability and improves our ability to track a case through the system. In addition, we added a new phone system for handling our 1-800 customer service calls and quadrupled the number of phone lines. We are proud that the average amount of time that someone had to wait for an operator was greatly reduced during March 1998. Mr. Chairman, I am not saying all is perfect -- we acknowledge delays in getting headstones and markers in place -- but we believe that the delays you have called to our attention in the past are no longer systemic and are now the exception rather than the rule. We will monitor and improve the process on a continuing basis.
NEW FY 1998 HEADSTONE AND MARKER CONTRACTS
Last fall, the ordering of Government-provided markers and headstones was delayed because some of the firms who bid on three of our new contracts filed formal protests of the contract bidding process to GAO. Unfortunately, we could no longer use existing contracts because they had expired, and we could not award new contracts and place orders until the protests were resolved. On October 15, 1997, GAO informed us the protests were dismissed. We then proceeded to award the contracts and began placing orders immediately. Unfortunately, the protests delayed the process for getting headstones and markers out to veterans’ families.
Our FY 1998 contracts are now in place and, in the end, we were able to improve the overall process by increasing efficiency and reducing costs because we implemented an "all-inclusive inscription" policy. The negotiated new contracts cover the costs of all authorized inscriptions, space permitting. Items previously known as "additional inscriptions" and paid for by the veteran’s family are now referred to as optional items and are included in VA’s contract
price. Under the new policy, we are processing headstones and markers more efficiently, improving customer service, and reducing transportation costs. Not only have we streamlined the process, improved service delivery and reduced contract costs, but we have also saved veterans and their next of kin the cost of "additional inscriptions."
GAO STUDY ON THE NATIONAL CEMETERY SYSTEM
At the request of the Committee, GAO recently submitted a report entitled, National Cemetery System: Opportunity Exists to Extend the Service Period of National Cemeteries. NCS supported much in the report. However, we did take exception to one recommendation suggesting that NCS extend its strategic plan to address veterans’ long-term burial demands during the peak years of 2005-2010. We recognize the need to address veterans’ long-term burial demands and are engaged in a variety of "long-term" planning activities. The strategies included in our current strategic plan, which address how we intend to meet our increasing burial demand, will continue to be used over the next decade as we position ourselves to meet years of peak workload.
We are, however, concerned that GAO’s recommendation to "extend" the strategic plan does not conform with the Department’s strategic planning process. Strategic planning and management in VA are dynamic processes that reflect the target realities of the five-year budget cycle and the requirements of GPRA, as well as formulating and identifying longer range issues. Extending the strategic plan beyond the five-year budget cycle would, in effect, de-link or sever the relationship between the strategic plan and the budget.
Mr. Chairman, I will close my remarks for now, but I look forward to discussing the issues that are important to us all. I would be happy to answer any questions the Subcommittee my have.