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Washington Report 052007

      
Date Published: 
052007
Original Author: 
Robert M. Fells
Original Publication: 
ICCFA Magazine

House bill would restore VA plot and marker allowances 

 
by ICCFA General Counsel Robert M. Fells, Esq.
 
 
ICCFA members asked to help find House co-sponsors, Senate sponsors At the request of the ICCFA, U.S. Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-NV) has introduced H.R 1273, a bill to restore the veterans plot allowance eligibility and the headstone/ marker allowance for use in private and religious cemeteries. These two cost-effective burial benefits were popular for many years with veterans and their families who preferred interment in non-government cemeteries for personal, ethnic or religious reasons.
 
The ICCFA is organizing a campaign among its members to seek co-sponsors for the bill in the House and the introduction of a companion bill in the Senate. For more information, contact General Counsel Bob Fells at 1.800.645.7700.
 
Some history: In 1990, Congress suddenly curtailed the eligibility of wartime veterans to receive the plot allowance unless they were receiving VA compensation or pension benefits, or died of service-connected injuries.
 
At the same time, Congress abolished the marker allowance that provided a cash reimbursement, based on the government's wholesale costs of furnishing markers, to veterans and their families who preferred to purchase their own marker or headstone for placement in a private cemetery.
When the VA's National Cemetery Administration was formally organized in 1973 as the result of Public Law 93-43, Congress implicitly acknowledged that national cemeteries did not operate in a vacuum, that private, religious and municipal cemeteries are part of the mix.
 
The ICCFA was instrumental in having included in the law a provision authorizing a plot allowance (then $150) to benefit the majority of veterans and their families who preferred interment in non-government cemeteries.
 
This plot allowance was also viewed as a means to offset demands on national cemeteries and as a recognition of the personal, religious and ethnic preferences of veterans. Subsequent legislation established additional forms of burial assistance, such as the marker allowance, to further avoid a forced reliance on national cemeteries.
 
Since the November 1990 repeal of the marker allowance and the curtailment of the plot allowance, the VA eligibility requirements to receive forms of burial benefits have been inconsistent. The wholesale availability of national cemetery interment to virtually all veterans and their immediate families contrasts sharply with the restricted benefits for veterans who wish to be buried in private cemeteries.
 
In that sense, Congress actually legislated against wartime veterans by cutting burial benefits to this group. The ICCFA has estimated that as many as 70 percent of the veterans previously entitled to burial benefits in non-government cemeteries were made ineligible through Congressional actions.
 
For example, in October 1981, P.L. 97-35 was enacted, disqualifying wartime veterans from receiving the non-service connected basic burial allowance (then $300) in the absence of additional criteria.
 
In November 1990, as mentioned above, Congress again discriminated against wartime veterans by restricting the plot allowance and eliminating the marker allowance. These modest, one-time payments not only honored the wishes of veterans but also resulted in long-term cost savings, since every additional burial in a national cemetery adds to the expense of maintaining graves in those cemeteries in perpetuity. It appears those advantages were not sufficiently regarded at the time.
 
In April 2005, the ICCFA brought to the attention of the House VA Subcommittee on Memorial Affairs the inequities of abolishing these two burial benefits. Almost a generation has passed since the plot and marker allowances were in effect, so it is not surprising that many younger members of Congress are unaware that those benefits ever existed.
 
Speaking on behalf of the association, Paul Elvig (now ICCFA president) alerted committee members to the staggering costs of maintaining national cemeteries in the future, and lamented the rescission of the plot and marker allowances that could have reduced those maintenance expenses. Bipartisan support was immediately expressed to restore these two benefits.
 
Since that time, the association has been working with Congresswoman Berkley's office to develop legislation addressing the restoration of these important benefits. The bill, which was introduced on March 1, will be pending over the next two years until the 110th Congress adjourns in late 2008.
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Code: 
wr052007