Statement of Tom Tarantino
Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America
Mister Chairman, Ranking Member, and Members of the Subcommittee, on behalf of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), I thank you for the opportunity to share our views and concerns on some very important issues facing veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan and their families.
Polytrauma and Adaptive Benefits
Veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan regularly receive excellent care in the ever-expanding polytrauma system. However, the DOD and the VA must continue to innovate, develop, and improve methods of care that address the changing nature of injuries from Iraq and Afghanistan. While these centers provide excellent care for servicemembers and veterans, there is a noticeable drop in the quality of care when transferring to community based care near the veteran’s home of record. Additionally, the quality of services for the disabled veteran near their home does not match the standards of care that a veteran receives while in a polytrauma center.
Additionally, IAVA is concerned with the structure of the adaptive services benefits that many veterans will use after leaving polytrauma care. Veterans are being forced into debt because of shortcomings in their benefits and the services that the VA provides. Currently, benefits for adaptive housing and automobiles are stuck at 1970’s funding levels; most are one-time deals. With about 80% of OIF and OEF veterans under the age of 30, a veteran living with permanent disabilities will require more than one automobile in his or her life. The current rate of $12,000 may have bought a van, equipped with adaptive modifications, back in 1972. Today, that might get you a mid size Kia with no adaptive technology. The veterans are left to pay the difference. We cannot tolerate a benefits system that requires a veteran to incur debt to perform everyday functions.
Finally, many veterans, wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan, are not homeowners and must return to their family homes to recover. They are then faced with a choice during a critical time in their recovery. The must choose between adapting the home where they are recovering, or save that benefit for the home where they will eventually settle. The need for these services is obvious, and the figures that require upgrading are known. There is no excuse for leaving a veteran with substandard benefits.
Social Work Case Management
VA Social Workers play an indispensible role in the treatment of veterans recovering from multiple traumatic injuries. The VA must rapidly expand their numbers. As more and more OIF and OEF veterans enter the VA health system their overall needs will continue to inundate the overworked and understaffed cadre of social work professionals within the VA system. Private sector social workers, on average, work on a caseworker to client ratio of 1:10 to 1:15. In comparison, in house VA social workers operate near a ratio of 1:35. The VA must address this issue before the ratios expand further. These caseworkers cannot properly address the needs of our veterans and their families under these currently crushing workloads.
Dependent & Survivor Education Services
To the spouses and dependents of veterans who gave their last full measure of devotion to this country the VA provides educational benefits under Chapter 35, the Survivors’ and Dependents’ Education Assistance Act (DEA). This benefit is limited to family members of veterans who died or became permanently and totally disabled due to a service-connected disability. In 2008, the VA reported that 80,191 family members took advantage of this program. This is more than the number of reservists using Chapter 1606.
Unlike the generous Post 9/11 GI Bill or the recently increased Montgomery GI Bill, DEA provides a paltry sum of $925/month, which will cover less than 60% of a public school education. The Post 9/11 GI Bill has become a game changer for many spouses and dependents that can now utilize their veteran’s unused education benefits to attend any public school in the country. IAVA believes that DEA benefits rates should be aligned with the generous benefits of the new GI Bill, to include tuition/fees, a living allowance and a book stipend. These changes will help prevent the creation of a two-tiered benefits system. The first tier being family members that can afford to go to school using the new GI bill, because they meet the criteria under the Marine Gunnery Sergeant Fry Scholarship. The second tier being family members who are left to use DEA and will have to take out student loans just to attend a community college.
Lastly, we believe that the definition of a “child” used under Chapter 35 and new Post 9/11 GI Bill, which requires dependents who have started college before the age of 23, unfairly excludes a number of dependents who simply got a late start attending college and should not be punished for doing so.
VA Outreach Efforts
Since early 2008, we have seen a noticeable shift in how the VA educates veterans about the care and services that they offer. Beginning with the suicide prevention ads in the DC region, the VA has continued to rethink how it communicates with the veteran population at large. I have personally met with representatives from the VHA, VBA and the VA Business Office to discuss how the VA can better reach out to veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. While there has been visible improvements with online and television advertisement, there is a clear lack of coordination between VA departments. Within the VA there is talent, will and desire to change the passive nature of VA communication, however there are still substantial cultural and structural hurtles that must be overcome.
IAVA believes that in order for the VA to conduct effective outreach, it must centralize its efforts between VHA, VBA, and NCA and speak as one Department of Veterans Affairs. The average veteran (and the average American for that matter) does not understand the difference between the VHA and the VBA. When I wait an entire semester for my GI Bill check to come, I’m upset with the VA, not the VBA. When I wait 2 months for a medical appointment, I’m upset with the VA, not the VHA. If the VA wants to effectively improve communications, it must speak to the veteran population clearly, avoiding government jargon.
Thank you once again for the chance to communicate our opinions on several of the issues facing veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. We look forward to continuing to work with the committee and I appreciate your time and attention.