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Public Statements

Statements On Introduced Bills And Joint Resolutions

Floor Speech

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Date:
Location: Washington, DC


STATEMENTS ON INTRODUCED BILLS AND JOINT RESOLUTIONS -- (Senate - May 02, 2007)

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By Mr. CRAIG:

S. 1265. A bill to amend title 38, United States Code, to expand eligibility for veterans' mortgage life insurance to include members of the Armed Forced receiving specially adapted housing assistance from the Department of Veterans Affairs; to the Committee on Veterans' Affairs.

Mr. CRAIG. Mr. President, I have sought recognition to comment on legislation I am introducing that will continue a positive trend in the provision of benefits to severely injured servicemembers and their families by making assistance available when it is needed most. My bill would give active duty servicemembers who utilize VA's specially adapted housing grant assistance with the ability to also purchase Veterans' Mortgage Life Insurance, or VMLI, through VA. Under current law, the receipt of specially adapted housing grants is the gateway to VMLI eligibility. And only those separated from service and legally classified as ``veterans'' are able to purchase coverage through VMLI.

Servicemembers and veterans who are blind, have lost the use of both their legs, and who have other severely disabling conditions are eligible to receive up to $50,000 in grants from VA to assist with needed housing adaptations, such as the widening of doorways, the construction of wheelchair ramps, and the installment of handrails. Notwithstanding this grant assistance, servicemembers and veterans must still pay any underlying mortgage that exists on the modified home. To ensure that survivors are not saddled with mortgage debt they cannot afford following the death of a severely disabled veteran, VA's VMLI program is available. Under VMLI, up to $90,000 of coverage, or coverage in the amount of any outstanding mortgage debt, whichever is less, is available. Veterans pay premiums at standard mortality rates and VA contributes subsidy payments so that all program expenses are met.

Until recently, grants under the specially adapted housing program could only be made to individuals who had separated from military service. In recognition of what can be an extremely lengthy recovery and separation process for those with profoundly disabling conditions, in 2004 we in Congress allowed housing grants to be made to active duty servicemembers. However, we did not extend the same access to VA's VMLI program for those still on active duty, an oversight that my legislation would remedy.

VA estimates that roughly 30 servicemembers per year will receive specially adapted housing grants, thus giving rise to VMLI eligibility should my bill be enacted. Because it is optional, VA expects only 15 servicemembers per year to purchase VMLI policies. Therefore, subsidy costs associated with my legislation are minimal, less than $500,000 over 10 years.

This Congress increasingly is recognizing that the benefits provided to our wounded servicemembers need to flow immediately, and that outmoded distinctions between ``veteran'' and ``active duty servicemember'' mean little when it comes to honoring our commitment to them. My legislation continues what I believe is an encouraging trend that looks at the career of a military man or woman as a continuum. It is a continuum that begins the day they enlist and it ends the day they die. Our Government's benefits should reflect that reality.

Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent that the text of the bill be printed in the Record.

There being no objection, the text of the bill was ordered to be printed in the Record

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By Mr. CRAIG:

S. 1266. A bill to amend title 38, United States Code, to increase assistance for veterans interred in cemeteries other than national cemeteries, and for other purposes; to the Committee on Veterans' Affairs.

Mr. CRAIG. Mr. President, I have sought recognition to comment on legislation I am introducing that will improve the availability of dignified burials for those who have served our country. The Veterans' Dignified Burial Assistance Act of 2007 would make three improvements to programs designed to ensure that veterans are perpetually honored for their service. Let me start by describing the first improvement which had its genesis, I am proud to say, in my home State of Idaho.

We have in Idaho a State veterans' cemetery located in Boise. The cemetery was established with the help of VA's State Cemetery Grants Program, a program which pays for 100 percent of the costs of establishing, expanding, and improving state cemeteries. Over one thousand veterans have been interred in the Idaho State Cemetery since it opened in 2004. I want to focus on 91 of those veterans who were interred through a program pioneered in Idaho called ``Missing in America.''

Through the Missing in America program Idaho cemetery officials, working with veterans' organizations and others, have actively sought to locate the unclaimed cremated remains of veterans throughout the State. They contacted funeral homes, county coroner offices, and any other place where those remains may have been located. Remarkably, they discovered the remains of 91 veterans. After verifying that they had eligibility, all 91 veterans were given a dignified burial.

I suspect what was found in Idaho would be found in other States. My legislation would incentivize other States to develop Missing in America programs like Idaho's by allowing revenue from VA's plot allowance benefit to go to states which seek out and inter unclaimed remains.

Under current law, State cemeteries may be reimbursed for the cost of interring eligible veterans. For each eligible veteran interred, a $300 plot allowance may be paid by VA. Revenue from the plot allowance is used to operate and maintain the appearance of State cemeteries. However, plot allowance revenue is not payable to States when veterans are interred more than 2 years after the permanent burial or cremation of the veteran's body. Thus, since each of the 91 veterans interred in Idaho had been left sitting on shelves in an urn for a great deal longer than 2 years, no plot allowance is payable. This doesn't make sense. Just as our system of benefits does not abandon or give up on veterans who are homeless or chronically ill, so too should our burial benefits system be designed not to abandon or give up on veterans whose remains are unclaimed. To that end, my legislation would waive the 2-year limit so that States could receive plot allowance revenue for interment of the unclaimed remains of veterans. The extra plot allowance revenue could be used to help states meet costs associated with running this program and other cemetery operation costs. Most importantly, my legislation would reward States for giving veterans what is long overdue: a fitting burial.

The second way my legislation helps to ensure dignified burials is by increasing VA's plot allowance benefit from $300 to $400. As I mentioned earlier, the plot allowance can be paid directly to a State cemetery for the interment of eligible veterans. But it can also be paid to the survivors of veterans who purchase burial space on their own in the private market. Under current law, veterans who die in a VA facility, who are in receipt of disability compensation, or who have low incomes and are in receipt of VA pension are eligible to receive the $300 plot allowance benefit. The plot allowance, created in 1973, is designed to ensure that veterans are not buried in a pauper's grave. When the benefit was created, it covered 13 percent of the average cost of an adult funeral. Today, it only covers approximately 5 percent of the cost. An independent assessment of VA burial benefits directed by Congress and published in 2000 recommended, as an option, increasing the plot allowance to $670, which at the time of the assessment represented 13 percent of the average cost of an adult funeral. Since that assessment was published, the major veterans' organizations have persistently recommended that Congress increase this benefit. In its most recent budget submission, the authors of the Independent Budget recommended that the plot allowance be increased to $745. In 2001, Congress took a first step, raising the benefit from $150 to $300. My legislation would take yet another, measured step.

Finally, my legislation would authorize $5 million per year under VA's State Cemetery Grant Program for VA to assist States in meeting operational and maintenance expenses. As I mentioned, the State Cemetery Grant Program finances the cost of establishing, expanding, or improving State cemeteries. States must agree to provide suitable land for a cemetery and they must meet administrative, operational, and maintenance costs.

My purpose in introducing this aspect of the legislation is twofold. First, VA is in the midst of the largest national cemetery expansion since the Civil War. Guiding its cemetery expansion effort was a prospective look at where and how many veterans will be living 20 years from now. Based on that prospective analysis, national cemeteries are being built in those areas of the country that have veterans' populations of 170,000 or more and that are not residing within, or expected to reside within, 75 miles of an open State or national cemetery. It is therefore highly likely that after this expansion has concluded, no additional national cemeteries will be built for quite some time. Thus, in order to serve veterans' populations in less densely populated areas in the future, VA and the States will need to rely more on the State Cemetery Grant Program. Allowing reimbursement for some maintenance or operational expenses will serve to make the program more attractive to States, which may otherwise decline to participate in the program due to budget constraints. In fact, the 2000 independent assessment I spoke about earlier made the same point, recommending Congressional consideration of amending the grant program to allow for reimbursement of the sort contemplated in my legislation.

My second purpose behind this provision is a bit more parochial. There are eight States in the country without any national cemetery, including Idaho. These are States with small or scattered veterans' populations. VA's criteria for establishing national cemeteries makes it unlikely that veterans in these States will ever have access to a national cemetery within the borders of their home State. Yet their service was national in character, and the desire for recognition of that national service through interment in a national cemetery is real, if not practical. It is my opinion that the Federal obligation to veterans residing in States like my own is therefore heightened. And if the only way to heighten that obligation is by requiring reimbursement of a greater share of the expenses now borne by the States, so be it. To my mind, this would be an equitable outcome, and one that I hope VA factors into criteria it will develop should my legislation be enacted.

Let me make one final and very important point. The cost of my legislation is in the $8 million per year range. Although I am convinced of the merits of the legislation, I am also committed to adhering to our budget rules which require that appropriate spending offsets be identified before new spending is advanced. I assure my colleagues that should my legislation be reported from the Veterans' Affairs Committee, it will be fully offset in accordance with our rules and my own principle of fiscal discipline.

In summary, the Veterans' Dignified Burial Assistance Act of 2007 will help us along in our collective goal of providing veterans with lasting resting places to honor their lives and service. This is good legislation, and I urge the support of my colleagues.

I ask unanimous consent that the text of the bill be printed in the Record.

There being no objection, the text of the bill was ordered to be printed in the Record

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