January 30, 2024

Ranking Member Takano's Opening Remarks During Full Committee Hearing on Survivor Benefits

Press Contact

Libby Carlson

WASHINGTON, DC – Today House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Ranking Member Mark Takano (CA-39) delivered the following opening remarks during the Full Committee’s hearing on the delivery of survivor benefits at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA): 

“Good morning and thank you, Chairman Bost.   

Two years ago, when the Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs Subcommittee held a hearing on the topic of survivor benefits, it was the first time it had been discussed in a decade.  So, I appreciate that we are not waiting another decade to again hear from this vital community.  Because what we found at that hearing two years ago, was a survivors’ community, one that is at the core of VA's mission, in need of greater direct assistance.   

Historically there has been a lack of resources dedicated to the mission of serving survivors, for example only TWO employees in the Office of Survivors Assistance to serve over 450,000 survivors as of 2022’s hearing.  We also saw a lack of awareness of who and where the survivors’ community are, and a lack of direct and targeted outreach to them.  As such, we have seen an under-utilization of survivors’ benefits.   

Since that subcommittee hearing, VA has made a few changes to increase their focus on survivors’ issues.  For example, VA has completed a long-overdue motto change, adopting one that is more inclusive and that now directly mentions their duty to serve survivors.  Moreover, VA has made the decision to move oversight of OSA from the Office of Transition and Economic Development to the Pension and Fiduciary Service at the Veterans Benefits Administration, a move that should hopefully shine more light on the work that OSA is doing.   

They have also moved oversight of the survivors’ advisory committee to the Veterans’ Health Administration, which was a bit more curious, but nevertheless will hopefully result in more visibility within VA into the committee’s great work.   

However, I am afraid, Mr. Chairman, that those changes so far have yet to produce substantial improvements to the programs utilized by survivors.  And I suspect that we will also hear from our VSO and survivor witnesses, that many of the same problems persist as there were two years ago. 

The move of OSA to P&F came with only a minimal bump in the staffing dedicated to it.  Indeed, OSA has grown from a paltry two employees, to a robust THREE.  And yet the number of survivors’ that VA is tasked with serving has only grown larger in the wake of the PACT Act.  So, I am anxious to hear from VA how they plan to further staff that office so it can better serve survivors.   

I also am looking forward to hearing from VA how they plan to better identify survivors and conduct more robust outreach to them.  Currently, VBA only collects minimal demographic information on survivors, in fact they cannot even query survivors’ claims by cause of the veterans’ death. VA must work to identify gaps in benefits utilization rates and conduct targeted outreach to disadvantaged or underserved populations.  

Additionally, sometimes survivors are only learning of the benefits available to them at the time of the veterans’ death.  When family members are grieving the loss of a loved one, putting the onus on survivors to determine what benefits they are eligible for is a disservice. ??Griefs’ impact on those who lose a family member is debilitating and makes it difficult to find and often retain information.   

That is why today, Mr. Chairman, I plan to introduce the Survivor Benefits Delivery Improvement Act, which will hopefully close some of these gaps in outreach and staffing and lead to better information in the hands of survivors PRIOR TO the time of need.  

Specifically, this bill will mandate the collection of demographic data from survivors receiving dependency and indemnity compensation (DIC), pensions under Chapter 15, and increased pensions for Aid and Attendance, with the goal being to improve outreach and equitable access to these benefits for the survivors of veterans.?? 

Collecting data on veterans, their families, caregivers and survivors is an important component to understanding who VA serves and how to improve the delivery of services and benefits to these populations.?? 

This bill will mandate the collection of this data, an analysis of any potential gaps in benefits utilization, and will direct VBA and NCA to create targeted outreach to underserved populations.   

The second thing this bill does, is to create a Survivors Solid Start program, based on the successful Solid Start program, to mandate OSA proactively call survivors to discuss with them the benefits they have available to them.  Additionally, the bill mandates that OSA have no fewer than five full time employees to carry out this mission.   

And while this bill will not unfortunately address the myriad technical and bureaucratic difficulties survivors face when accessing benefits, nor will it address the inadequacy of the monetary value of those benefits, it will hopefully lead VA to dedicate more time and resources to serving this population. 

That is why I am also working with VSOs on sunsetting Chapter 35 as an educational benefit – and instead placing all veterans, survivors, and dependents under the same educational program.  While well intentioned, the Chapter 35 benefit lags far behind the Forever GI Bill benefit, and leaves survivors lacking benefits, and often times unable to get the specialized claims processing needed under Chapter 35. 

Survivors deserve a VA that is responsive to their needs, both before and after the death of their veteran.  And it is my intent with the Survivor Benefits Delivery Improvement Act, and our work on Chapter 35, to move VA further in that direction.   

Survivors have been underserved for too long and they deserve this Committees’ attention AND action.  Today we give them our attention, but like with so many other issues, this Congress has so far failed to deliver the action.   

So, I invite you, Mr. Chairman, to join me in supporting the Survivor Benefits Delivery Improvement Act when I introduce it this afternoon. To help demonstrate to survivors, beyond just words, that they are a priority for this Committee and this Congress. 

Thank you, Mr. Chairman and I yield back.”