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Mr. MILLER of Florida. Mr. Speaker, I yield myself such time as I might consume.
H.R. 5948, as amended, makes great strides towards protecting some of our Nation's most vulnerable veterans in improving the quality of other memorial benefits that our veterans have earned.
First and foremost, this bill will bring needed protections and reforms to our most vulnerable veterans. For far too long, bad actors in VA's fiduciary program have taken advantage of veterans in every part of this great Nation. When pressed on this issue by the committee, VA claimed that the program was fine and did not need any statutory changes.
This bill will help weed out those bad actors and implement the necessary oversight actions VA has failed to take while simplifying the confusing and burdensome requirements of those beneficiaries performing their jobs well on behalf of those veterans.
The VA fiduciary program is intended to administer benefits for veterans deemed incompetent to handle their own finances by the Department of Veteran Affairs fiduciary program. Numerous deficiencies within the program have been highlighted by the Veterans' Affairs Committee and brought to the VA's attention; yet the Department is continually slow to act and fix these systemic problems.
Among those problems are fiduciaries that are embezzling veterans' funds, refusing to pay a veteran's utility bills, fiduciaries taking more than the amount authorized by law as commission for services rendered, convicted felons appointed as fiduciaries, and fiduciaries telling veterans to conserve money by not running their air conditioning during the summer months.
Mr. Speaker, despite these tragic stories, VA maintains that its fiduciary program is, in fact, sound, an argument difficult to justify when earlier this month a couple pleaded guilty to stealing over $2 million from 49 veterans. I hate to tell you that this is not an isolated case. At the beginning of 2012, a U.S. district judge sentenced two VA-appointed fiduciaries to prison for stealing nearly $900,000 from 10 different veterans. In both cases, the fiduciaries used the stolen funds to go gambling, among other things.
The Veterans Fiduciary Reform and Noble Service Act makes much-needed
improvements to VA's fiduciary program by allowing veterans to appeal the appointment of a fiduciary, allowing a veteran to request that a new fiduciary be appointed when cause can be shown, and to designate a preferred fiduciary ahead of time, such as a family member.
The bill would also remove the profit motive for predatory fiduciaries by reducing the commission that's paid to them to a level in line with Social Security's program that's equivalent. Fiduciaries would have to undergo background checks, minimizing the chance for unqualified fiduciaries to enter the system. They'd also have to account in writing for their disbursement of a veteran's income on an annual basis, addressing another lapse in oversight the VA has failed to address.
Section 3 of the legislation designates a ``Place of Remembrance'' at Arlington National Cemetery to serve as a dignified final resting place for remains of veterans that may not otherwise have a final resting place. This section is in direct response to our learning last year that cremated remains were being taken from Dover Air Force Base to a landfill, a practice that took place over a 4-year period.
Sections 4, 5, and 6 aim to address an incident that happened at the Bushnell National Cemetery where a veteran with no known next of kin was buried in a cardboard box.
Section 4 requires the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to furnish an appropriate casket or urn for a deceased veteran with no known next of kin, where no other person claims the body, and the veteran lacks sufficient resources to cover burial and funeral expenses.
Section 5 improves the communication between the VA and funeral directors and the medical examiner's office by requiring the Secretary to ensure that any entity transporting the body of a deceased veteran to a national cemetery submits to VA whether the deceased veteran was cremated and whether or not steps were taken to ensure the deceased veteran has no next of kin.
Section 6 requires the Secretary to submit to both the House and Senate Committees on Veterans' Affairs a report within 180 days of enactment of this legislation detailing VA's compliance with industry standards for caskets and urns, including a description of the industry standards for caskets and urns and an assessment of compliance at the national cemeteries that are currently being administered by VA.
Section 7 of H.R. 5948, as amended, would bar convicted tier 3 sex offenders sentenced to a minimum of life in prison from burial in national veterans cemeteries and some State veterans cemeteries. Currently, those convicted of capital crimes are prohibited from such burial, and this will prohibit people convicted of an equally heinous crime from tarnishing the honor of veterans cemeteries.
Section 8 ensures that the explicit wishes of a veteran's family with regard to religious expressions are honored during interment or inurnment ceremonies at a VA national cemetery. Last year, officials at the Houston National Cemetery were accused of restricting religious speech at a ceremony.
While that specific incident was resolved in the courts, this section provides a legislative safeguard for all national cemeteries. Section 9 would allow County Veterans Service officers and some congressional employees access to read-only information regarding the status of a veteran's claim.
During a roundtable discussion between the committee and county veterans service officers, one of the main obstacles highlighted to answering veterans' questions was the lack of access to claims file information. Facilitating this additional level of assistance in the claims process is one simple step we can take to help veterans and potentially address the growing claims backlog.
Section 10, as amended, will improve protections to veterans whose sensitive information has been compromised by the VA. Now, veterans may not know right now that their personal information has been compromised for well over a month after it has occurred, but in this time of predatory identity theft, that's far too long and much damage could have taken place.
Section 11 of the bill adds a commonsense prohibition on the payment of bonuses to VA employees who violate Federal law, including Federal or VA acquisition regulations.
Section 12 rolls back the current average of nearly $400 million the VA annually pays out in bonuses and other incentives, findings that both the committee and VA's own inspector general show numerous cases of unjustified awards--often to employees with poor performance records--and significant retention incentives going to long-term employees who had publicly stated they were already preparing to retire while others around the country are taking steps to better manage their own budgets. It's time the VA does the very same.
With all of this, I want to urge my colleagues to join me in supporting H.R. 5948, as amended.
I reserve the balance of my time.
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