On November 13, 2013, the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity, held an oversight hearing to review the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Independent Living program (IL). The IL program was established by Congress in 1980, as part of the Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment (VR&E) Program of Chapter 31, Title 38, USC. IL is one of five tracks within the VA’s Vocational Education and Employment Program. When veterans cannot benefit from the employment directed tracks because of the serious nature of their service-connected disability, they may consider the IL program.
Congressman Bill Flores (R-TX) chairs the Subcommittee and Mark Takano (D-CA) serves as Ranking Minority Member. Paralyzed Veterans of America (Paralyzed Veterans) was invited to testify for the hearing because our members are a high percentage of the users that participate in the IL program.
The mission of VR&E is to provide veterans with service-connected disabilities the necessary services and assistance to achieve maximum independence in daily living, to become employable, and to obtain and maintain suitable employment. Although employment for the veteran should be a goal of VR&E, those veterans with serious disabilities requiring extensive rehabilitation before considering employment, or who may never be employable, will qualify and benefit from the IL program.
Paralyzed Veterans' testimony highlighted the cap, or number of veterans admitted into the program each year. Since the beginning of the IL program in 1980 it has had a limit on the number of veterans allowed to use this option each fiscal year. The current cap is 2,700 veterans per year. Paralyzed Veterans reminded the Subcommittee that military service, including overseas combat, does not place a limit, or cap on serious injuries that take place while serving the nation. For this reason, Paralyzed Veterans, along with the co-authors and supporters of The Independent Budget, have asked Congress to remove this cap.
Also testifying was a representative from the Government Accountability Office (GAO). GAO is the non-partisan government organization that investigates, analyzes, and reports to Congress both good aspect and problem issues that demand attention. Information from a recent GAO report (GAO-13-474, VA Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment Program: Improved Oversight of Independent Living Services and Supports Is Needed, June 2013) highlighted some issues that will require more attention by VR&E, and continued oversight of this important VA program.
The IL program has a 30 month time limit for the veteran to complete their individual program. Most individual programs, about 89 percent, were completed for those starting their program in 2008. On occasion, a veteran may require an extension to finish a program or some may drop out because of health problems.
Paralyzed Veterans and Disabled American Veterans (DAV) both emphasized that this program is a very important component of the rehabilitation process. For that reason, the VA should increase their outreach to disabled veterans to increase the number of veterans who apply to use IL. If the number of applications far exceeds the cap on IL, this would better inform Congress of the need to remove the cap.
Chairman Flores said he is impressed with the overall performance of the IL program. He commented that there should be more sharing of ideas between the VR&E offices since some offices used a program or product repeatedly to help IL veterans, while other offices never used that program or product. He will invite the VA back to the Subcommittee next year to hear of their efforts to make necessary adjustments with this program. To read PVA’s testimony, please visit www.pva.org.
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