Steve Gonzalez, assistant director the Legion's Employment & Education Division, testified before the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity on March 24. (Photo by Patrick Fallon)

Legion testimony focuses on changes to VA laws

At a March 24 congressional hearing, The American Legion provided written and oral statements addressing positions on pending legislation before the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity.

Legislation highlighted in the Legion statements included:

  • Reducing Barriers for Veterans Education Act of 2015

  • Increasing the Department of Veterans Affairs Accountability to Veterans Act of 2015

  • Ensuring VA Employee Accountability Act

  • GI Bill Education Quality Enhancement Act of 2015

  • GI Bill Fairness Act of 2015

Steve Gonzalez, assistant director of The American Legion’s Veterans Employment and Education Division, conveyed the Legion’s position on key pieces of pending legislation regarding changes to the Veterans Access, Choice, and Accountability Act of 2014.

“While we support much of the proposed legislation, there are a few areas that could benefit from further guidance and improvement,” Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez said The American Legion was gratified that in 2014 Congress passed legislation that included among its provisions one that effectively requires public universities and colleges that participate in the Post-9/11 GI Bill to provide in-state tuition to veterans and dependents using those GI bill benefits, regardless of how long they have lived in the state.

Many states either currently assist all or certain veterans by recognizing them as in-state students for purposes of attending a public educational institution or are in the process of making rule changes necessary to comply with the in-state tuition provision.

Waivers are available for states that can’t meet the current July 1, 2015, implementation date allowing them additional time to comply with the federal requirement.

“It is not necessary to delay the implementation of this important change to July 1, 2016,” Gonzalez added.

Regarding the Increasing the Department of Veterans Affairs Accountability to Veterans Act of 2015, The American Legion supports accountability at all levels within VA and transparency.

Reacting to the firing of Phoenix VA Healthcare System Director in November of last year, American Legion National Commander Mike Helm said in November that “this is one long-overdue step in a journey that is far from over. Unfortunately, as we all soon discovered after the story broke last April, this problem was not isolated to Phoenix. It was widespread, and we expect to see additional consequences, even criminal charges if they are warranted, for anyone who knowingly misled veterans and denied them access to medical services.”

"The American Legion believes it is important to ensure there is accountability at all levels within VA and that the process is completely transparent," the Legion's written testimony stated. "Where VA employees are found to have engaged in wrongdoing, The American Legion supports the appointment of a special prosecutor to be assigned to investigate and vigorously prosecute any VA employees engaged in fraudulent practices designed to improperly award bonuses or other financial or meritorious awards to the perpetrator. While those in the Senior Executive Service can and should receive performance bonuses when their performance is exemplary, The American Legion believes any bonuses need to be tied clearly to quantitative and qualitative measures. There must be an open process for determining these awards that all stakeholders can examine to determine the propriety of the awarded bonuses.

"This legislation, while it is helpful toward achieving these ends in some ways, has some sections which still raise concerns about the manner of their implementation. The American Legion supports increased accountability, and those employees found guilty of having committed crimes at the expense of the veterans entrusted to their care should never profit from those crimes. To achieve bonuses based on manipulation and lies undercuts any trust with the veterans’ community. Requiring additional transparency about SES performance outcomes is also laudable and supported by The American Legion."

The American Legion recognizes the importance of reforming the bonus system and indeed the management culture within VA, Gonzalez said. He added that the Legion applauds initial efforts conducted by VA Secretary Robert McDonald to begin that process, as well as the diligence of this committee to direct oversight efforts toward that task. "This legislation has great intentions, and the portions related to adding transparency to the system and preventing employees from profiting at the cost of veterans are strong," Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez told lawmakers that The American Legion supports some portions of the bill but believes additional work is necessary to support it entirely.

Gonzalez concluded his remarks conveying the Legion’s continued dedication to ensuring the welfare of veterans across the nation. “With further work, perhaps more of the legislation could be supported, and The American Legion looks forward to working with this committee to ensure impactful legislation is passed toward this end,” he said.