I want to thank Mr. Hall for holding this timely legislative hearing and for considering my bill, the National Cemeteries Expansion Act, H.R. 3544.
I appreciate your stellar leadership as Chairman of the DAMA Subcommittee and your ability to take on the toughest fights like the claims and appeals backlogs and the need for greater attention to combat PTSD. I commend you and the rest of your Subcommittee Members even more for getting results in these areas that positively impact the lives of our veterans, their families and survivors. Finally, I thank you for helping me to lead the charge to move the VBA into the 21st Century. As I have said many times in the past, it MUST become a world-class, veteran-centered, technologically adept, 21st century organization. Our veterans deserve no less.
Turning to my bill, H.R. 3544 seeks to reduce VA's current guidelines for the establishment of new national cemeteries from 170,000 veterans in a 75-mile radius to 110,000 veterans in a 75-mile radius and provide greater flexibility to the Secretary in this area. The goal of this legislation is to be able to provide more optimal burial options to our veterans and their survivors than the current policy affords.
According to a study conducted by ICF International for VA, no location in the US will meet the current criterion for the establishment of a new national cemetery until 2015, leaving several large areas with large numbers of veterans (i.e., more than 110,000) unserved by a VA burial option. H.R. 3544 seeks to address the shortcomings of the current policy proactively instead of waiting until it becomes an emergency situation that leaves many veterans and their survivors with undesirable burial options.
My bill would also require the Secretary to consider specific measures when conducting annual performance measures of the percentage of veterans who are served by any cemetery. ICF International's comprehensive study concluded that VA's current methodology of measuring the percentage served by a VA burial option is flawed, because it is unable to accurately serve veterans living inside existing service areas and double counts veterans residing within multiple service areas.
Additionally, using census tracts rather than counties to determine the percentage of veterans served will enable the Secretary to better serve veterans with VA burial services by more accurately reflecting the veteran population of a given area. H.R. 3544 also calls on the Secretary to use measures to avoid double-counting to more accurately gauge the number of veterans living within an area when testing locations for new national cemeteries.
Mr. Chairman, this legislation would address the growing needs of our veteran population and their survivors by increasing access to VA burial services. The ICF International study cited that distance is particularly important to veterans when making burial choices and decreasing the veteran threshold for new cemetery construction would aid in giving veterans the optimal burial options to which they are entitled.
While VA indicates that it does not support this bill, I think it is insensible for VA to focus on meeting outdated targets due in 2011, instead of meeting the present burial needs of our veterans. In its testimony, VA talks about revising the policy as it looks to the future. Well, I say to you that the future is NOW. Between 2010 and 2030, your current policy would only allow the establishment of one national cemetery and only because it is to replace one expected to close.
VA's current policy negatively affects the veterans who live in the districts of many who sit on this Committee and many other Members of Congress who have contacted us. It simply leaves too many veterans and survivors unserved, NOW. We can and should do better by lowering the population threshold.
I strongly urge Secretary Shinseki and his leadership at the NCA, the VBA and VA's Office of Policy and Planning to work with the Committee to update its current national cemetery establishment policy to ensure that it is adequately meeting the burial needs of our veterans and their survivors.
Thank you, I yield back.