American Legion National Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation Division Deputy Director Zachary Hearn testifies during a legislative hearing on April 5, in Washington, D.C. Photo by By Johnathon Clinkscales

Legion testifies on proposed 2017 veteran legislation

American Legion National Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation Division Deputy Director Zachary Hearn testified before the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs on April 5 in regards to seven proposed laws that impact veterans. The laws range from financial fraud protection to increased transparency for disability claims processing and adjudication.

“The simple fact is (that) serving in our nation’s armed forces is inherently dangerous,” Hearn said in his opening remarks. “Medical conditions may manifest due to service, and we, as a society, have an obligation to compensate for medical conditions related to this service. Many of these veterans depend upon these benefits and for this reason, it is imperative that we ensure these deserving veterans and their family members receive the highest level of consideration.”

When it comes to having an obligation to compensate, H.R. 105, the Protect Veterans from Financial Fraud Act of 2017, is designed to ensure that the VA secretary is able to repay veterans who have been swindled by fiduciaries, as well as establish an appeals process for determinations by the VA secretary of veterans’ mental capacity and for other purposes.

Hearn said VA’s Fiduciary Program is designed to protect the most vulnerable beneficiaries who are deemed unable to manage their financial affairs. Over 50 percent of these beneficiaries are 80 years old or older, and in most cases, are unable to recover their lost benefits because not all fiduciaries act in their best interest, he said.

The Legion supports the passage of H.R. 105, according to Hearn, as all veterans injured by VA fiduciaries should be able to collect on lost funds due to a betrayal of trust.

“Veterans who have been impacted by poor acting fiduciaries do not have the ability to recoup their lost funds from VA unless the fiduciary represents 10 or greater beneficiaries,” said Hearn. “(H.R. 105) would now permit VA to provide the lost funds to the veteran regardless of the amount of beneficiaries represented by a fiduciary.”

As for H.R. 299, the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act of 2017, Hearn said it corrects a wrong that has plagued the Blue Water veterans community, which includes over 800,000 people who served on open sea ships during the Vietnam War between 1962 and 1975.

“(For years,) Blue Water Navy veterans have pointed to a 2002 Australian study that found the distilling of seawater not only failed to eliminate the toxic chemicals, but it (also) enhanced its impact,” Hearn said.

In May 2011, the National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine (IOM) released its report, “Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans and Agent Orange Exposure,” after the VA requested a review of medical and scientific evidence on the veterans’ exposure to herbicides like Agent Orange, a blend of tactical herbicides the U.S. military sprayed to remove trees and dense tropical foliage that provided cover for enemies during Operation Ranch Hand in the Vietnam War.

The report from IOM concluded that there was not enough evidence to support the Blue Water Navy veterans’ presumptive exposure to such herbicides. “In short, VA cannot prove Blue Water Navy veterans were exposed to Agent Orange and it appears they never will,” Hearn said. “The American Legion has long believed that these veterans of the Blue Water Navy deserve to be treated as presumptively exposed and supports (H.R. 299).”

H.R. 1328, the American Heroes Cost-of-Living Adjustment (COLA) Act of 2017, would seek to provide an automatic annual cost-of-living adjustment for veterans disability benefits. While this bill would prove efficient in the administration of COLA, Hearn said it could come at a significant cost to the nation’s veterans as it uses the Chained Consumer Price Index, or chained CPI, as its foundation.

Hearn said the current COLA formula already understates the true cost-of-living increases faced by seniors and people with disabilities. “A 30-year-old veteran with no children and 100 percent disabled would likely lose about $100,000 in disability compensation by the time the veteran (reaches) 75 years of age. This is the equivalent of years of benefits lost due to (H.R. 1328),” Hearn said.

Although the Legion understands and appreciates the efforts to remove affected veterans from the political debate in determining appropriate annual adjustments for disability benefits, Hearn said the Legion opposes any legislative efforts to automatically index such cost-of-living adjustments to the cost-of-living adjustment authorized for Social Security recipients, non-service connected disability recipients and death pension beneficiaries, as noted in American Legion Resolution No. 187.

Unlike H.R. 1328, Hearn said the Legion supports legislation to provide a periodic cost-of-living adjustment increase and to increase the monthly rates of disability compensation. H.R. 1329, the Veterans' Compensation Cost-of-Living Adjustment Act of 2017, would provide a COLA for VA disability and other monetary benefits effective this year on Dec. 1.

“For nearly 100 years, The American Legion has advocated on behalf of our nation’s veterans, to include the awarding of disability benefits associated with chronic medical conditions that manifest related to selfless service to this nation,” Hearn said. “COLA is not simply an acronym or a minor adjustment in benefits. Instead, it is a tangible benefit that meets the needs of the increasing costs of living in a nation that they bravely defended.”

H.R. 1390 authorizes the VA to pay costs associated with transporting deceased veterans to state or tribal-owned veterans cemeteries. VA currently pays transportation costs for national cemeteries – Hearn said the Legion supports this bill as it would expand options for veterans’ families.

H.R. 1564, the VA Beneficiary Travel Act of 2017, specifies a funding source for travel related to examinations by medical professionals, not employed by VA, for compensation and pension examinations. This Legion-supported bill properly designates where VA draws funds for veterans to receive payment for travel to compensation and pension exams and does not impose additional funding requirements.

In terms of disability compensation claims, the Legion has reviewed tens of thousands of claims in regional offices around the country for the last 20 years through its Regional Office Action Review program. Hearn said the Legion has even testified to Congress that VA schedules unnecessary and duplicative examinations, despite already having the evidence necessary to grant such claims.

“This second exam comes at a cost to VA and delays an adjudication,” Hearn said. “Despite enduring medical examinations for Social Security purposes and having the benefit granted by the agency, VA would conduct their own examinations to determine the veteran’s employability. Some in the veteran community refer to this needless development of disability claims as ‘developing to deny.’”

While it’s unfortunate that a bill has to be passed to force VA to do what it already has the authority to do, Hearn said H.R. 1725, the Quicker Benefits Delivery Act of 2017, would compel VA to release data that establishes acceptable clinical evidence and increase transparency for claims development and adjudication.

“The American Legion believes that the treatment of the evidence received from private medical providers will receive higher consideration,” he said. “This will expedite adjudications and increase claims processing transparency.”