H.R. 2349: Veterans'' Benefits Training Improvement Act of 2011

H.R. 2349

Veterans'' Benefits Training Improvement Act of 2011

Sponsor
Rep. Jon Runyan

Date
October 12, 2011 (112th Congress, 1st Session)

Staff Contact
Communications

Floor Situation

On Tuesday, October 11, 2011, the House is scheduled to consider H.R. 2349 under a suspension of the rules requiring a two-thirds majority for passage.  H.R. 2349 was introduced by Rep. Jon Runyan (R-NJ) on June 24, 2011, and was referred to the House Committee on Veterans Affairs.

Bill Summary

H.R. 2349 would modify the eligibility requirements for veterans’ pension awards. The bill also would require the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to undertake a pilot program to assess the skill level of claims processing personnel, and would make several other administrative changes to veterans’ benefits programs.

Assessment of Claims-Processing Skills Pilot Program: Section 2 would establish a four-year pilot program at five VA regional offices to test the skills and proficiency of claims processors (both managers and employees) and to provide remediation and training to those individuals who do not pass the tests.  Employees who failed the skills assessment after two attempts would be subject to unspecified personnel action.  The bill also would require an annual report on the pilot program.

Extension of Income Verification Match: Section 3 would extend authorities under current law that allow VA to access information on income reported to the IRS for the purpose of verifying the income reported by recipients of veterans pension benefits.   Authority for the IRS to provide such information to VA was extended indefinitely in Public Law 110-245, and authority for VA to acquire that information is scheduled to expire on September 30, 2011. Section 3 would extend VA’s authority through September 30, 2013.  According to VA, the department saved approximately $4 million in newly identified overpayments of pension awards by verifying veterans’ incomes in 2010 and an average of $4 million annually over the 2006-2010 period.

 

Exclusion of Certain Reimbursements for Pension Purposes: Section 3 also would exclude certain reimbursements and insurance settlements made to a veteran, surviving spouse, or child from being counted as income in determining disability pension awards.  Under current law, certain payments can be counted as income and reduce a veteran’s or surviving spouse’s pension award. Thus, the effect of section 3 would be to increase the size of pension awards.  According to VA, under current practice, payments for casualty losses are already excluded from income determinations. Awards for pain and suffering are included as income and make up the majority of reductions in pension awards.

Section 4 would allow VA to use electronic communications when possible to inform a veteran with a pending claim that more information is needed to substantiate a claim for benefits.

Section 5 would require VA to make no less than two attempts to obtain private medical records for use in completing a pending claim for benefits.

Reinstatement of Penalties: Section 7 would reinstate penalties for any individual found to be soliciting a fee or compensation for the assistance to a veteran in filing an application for benefits. The provision would expand the number of individuals who could be federally prosecuted. Because those prosecuted and convicted under section 7 could be subject to criminal fines, the federal government might collect additional fines if the legislation is enacted.

Performance Awards for Senior Executive Staff: Section 8 would limit the amount that VA could pay in performance awards to senior staff to $2 million per year over the 2012-2016 period. In 2010, VA paid about $3.3 million in performance award payments.

Background

Section 2--Assessment of Claims-Processing Skills Pilot Program

VA has used certification testing as a means to gauge whether certain employees should advance in pay grade, rather than using certification as a means to measure performance, ensure accountability, and reinforce required training at the individual level.  Although testing to certify proficiency in a subject matter is certainly a worthwhile standard for promotion, the Committee believes that certification testing could be used to more broadly influence the type of training or remediation necessary at the individual employee level.

Section 3--Exclusion of certain reimbursements of expenses from determiniation of annual income with respect to pensions for veterans and surviving spouses and children of veterans

The purpose of VA pension benefits is to ensure that wartime veterans with limited means, who are unable to work due to age or non service-connected disability, have a minimum level of income support. Certain spouses and dependent children are also eligible for VA pension.  In order to verify certain kinds of countable income to ensure accurate pension payments, VA uses existing legal authority to match income data it receives with data possessed by the Internal Revenue Service. However, that legal authority is set to expire on November 18, 2011.

Current law exempts from income determinations reimbursements for any kind of “casualty loss,” which is defined in VA regulation as “the complete or partial destruction of property resulting from an identifiable event of a sudden, unexpected or unusual nature.”  However, current law does not exempt from income determinations reimbursements received as a result of accident, theft, or ordinary loss, and it does not exempt from income determinations reimbursements received as a result of pain and suffering associated with a casualty loss. Thus, if a pension recipient receives reimbursement from an insurance company for these items, it may cause an immediate reduction or elimination of monthly VA pension, even though the recipient may have needed to use proceeds from the insurance reimbursement to cover immediate or near-term expenses related to the casualty loss, such as purchasing a replacement automobile.

Section 4--Authorization of use of electronic communications to provide notice to claimants for benefits under laws administered by the Secretary of Veterans Affairs.

Authorizing the use of the most effective means available for communication would allow VA the option of sending a notice of responsibility to the claimant using either electronic correspondence or written correspondence. This section contains no requirement limiting correspondence to electronic mail. With its enactment, VA would have the ability to communicate quickly and efficiently with claimants. VA would no longer be statutorily restricted in its means of communicating with claimants, nor would it still be subject to the inherent added time of only using written mail delivered through the postal system.

Section 5--Duty to assist claimants in obtaining private records

As with the similar provision in Section 4, this provision is intended to reduce the number of situations wherein VA spends unnecessary time and resources to pursue private medical records that may already have been submitted in the claimant's file, may not exist, may not be obtainable, are not relevant to the claim or even if obtained are highly unlikely to change the rating that would otherwise be assigned based on the evidence of record. It must not be used to speed claims through the process by waiving notice or duty to assist requirements when fulfilling these duties could result in a higher rating for veterans. The Committee believes that with enactment of this legislation, VA would continue to have an obligation to obtain or assist veterans in obtaining relevant medical records, both public and private, but it would be able to do so in a smarter manner so that VA stops chasing irrelevant, duplicative or unnecessary records. This provision makes clear that the purpose of VA's duty to assist should be limited to situations where it will actually assist veterans in substantiating their claims.

Section 6--Conditions for treatment of certain persons as adjudicated mentally incompetent for certain purposes

Testimony submitted by the Reserve Officers Association (ROA) in connection with the Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs hearing on July 7, 2011, pointed out the risks of VA assigning labels through an administrative process to those who have served in the military, which only serve to inflame the public's distrust of the mental capacity of those same individuals. In this case, VA's designation of veterans appointed a fiduciary as `mentally incompetent' automatically attaches to it a placement on the NICS list, a list filled with criminals and others who have demonstrated through their actions that they present a danger to society. The Federal Gun Control Act of 1968 process VA has been directed to follow unfairly labels veterans as potentially dangerous without appropriate due process.

The Committee believes a rational process, in an appropriate forum, is an absolute necessity before Constitutional rights are abridged for any American, but especially America's veterans.  Accordingly, section 6 would clarify that in any case arising out of VA's administration of benefits under title 38, a VA beneficiary who is mentally incapacitated, deemed mentally incompetent, or experiencing an extended loss of consciousness, shall not be considered adjudicated as a mental defective under the GCA without the order or finding of a judge, magistrate, or other judicial authority of competent jurisdiction that such individual is a danger to him- or herself or others.

Section 7--Reinstatement of penalties for charging veterans unauthorized fees

In general, an agent or attorney must be recognized by VA in order to act in the preparation, presentation, or prosecution of a claim before VA.  The purpose of existing law is to protect veterans from being charged excessive fees for aid in prosecuting applications to VA for benefits under various statutes passed for their relief and assistance. Further, the law is designed to prevent unscrupulous persons from receiving compensation or fees for obtaining benefits for veterans from VA.

Recent investigative news reports and testimony before the Committee has identified that since 2006, there has been an increase in non-accredited individuals, organizations and private companies that have been taking advantage of veterans by charging fees to assist them with filing claims for veterans' benefits with the VA that may or may not have actually been filed. Since these individuals, groups and companies are not accredited, suspension and disbarment are not a viable deterrent and the language of existing law provides little avenue for successful prosecution of these unscrupulous individuals.

Section 8--Performance awards in the Senior Executive Service

In an acknowledgment of the damage that unrestrained government spending has wrought on the national economy, one of the first actions of the 112th Congress was to adopt a 5 percent budget cut for Congressional offices. A further 6 percent cut is anticipated for FY 2012. In addition, a freeze on raises in Federal employee pay is in effect through 2012. Despite this step toward fiscal restraint, VA reserved the right to offer pay increases, performance awards, and bonuses to certain health care and information technology employees. In response to pre-hearing questions for the record submitted by Chairman Jeff Miller in connection with the Committee's February 17, 2011, hearing on VA's Fiscal Year 2012 budget, VA cited a need for these bonuses to improve its ability to retain such employees.

However, Committee investigations and news reports discovered that this type of employee was not always the recipient of these bonuses. Committee investigations uncovered bonuses being paid to facility directors with multiple citations of mismanagement, and news reports showed large retention bonuses being paid to medical facility directors who were at or near retirement.

According to information supplied by VA, 221 SES bonuses were awarded in FY 2008 at a total cost of $3,816,330; 219 bonuses were awarded in FY 2009 at a total cost of $3,728,536; and 227 bonuses were awarded in FY 2010 at a total cost of $3,342,100.  At a time when the entire Legislative Branch is reducing spending, and many Executive Branch employees will not see pay increases, the Committee believes it is appropriate that VA reevaluate its entire bonus program and exercise restraint in its awarding of bonuses. 

Cost

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates H.R. 2349 would decrease direct spending by $11 million over the 2012-2016 period and by $16 million over the 2012-2021 period.  In addition, CBO estimates that implementing H.R. 2349 would reduce net discretionary costs by $1 million over the 2012-2016 period, assuming appropriation actions consistent with the bill. Enacting the bill would have an insignificant effect on revenues.  Pay-as-you-go procedures apply because enacting the legislation would affect direct spending and revenues.