Veterans Affairs:

Data Needed to Help Improve Decisions Concerning Veterans' Access to Burial Options

GAO-14-537: Published: Sep 9, 2014. Publicly Released: Sep 9, 2014.

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What GAO Found

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), through its National Cemetery Administration (NCA), has developed a methodology to identify whether veterans have reasonable access to burial options, as well as to support decisions about future cemetery locations. NCA's methodology uses county-level population data to determine veterans' access to cemeteries. Using its methodology, NCA estimates that about 96 percent of veterans will have reasonable access to a burial option—that is, have a veterans cemetery within 75 miles of their residences—by the end of fiscal year 2017. The choice of county-level data for this analysis results in NCA giving up some precision in locating veteran populations relative to cemetery locations. This is because counties can vary significantly in size and population distribution, in contrast to census tracts, which are small statistical subdivisions of counties. Greater precision could improve NCA's ability to identify unserved veteran populations and also improve decisions regarding whether and where to establish future cemeteries. Indeed, GAO's analyses—using census tract data—confirmed that over 89 percent of veterans would be served by a veterans cemetery by the end of fiscal year 2017, but also that there are significant numbers of served and unserved veterans who are not identified by NCA's calculations. For example, in Central California, NCA's methodology identified about 13,000 unserved veterans, whereas GAO's analysis identified over 52,000 unserved veterans in that same area. NCA's software has the capability to estimate veteran populations using census tract data, but officials said that they had not done so because they do not believe that it would make a significant difference in their decisions. However, GAO's analysis shows that the use of different methodologies can yield significantly different results for both the estimated number and location of the veterans considered unserved. Because NCA policy identifies the estimated number of unserved veterans as a key factor in NCA's decisions regarding future cemetery locations, as well as for awarding cemetery grants to states and tribal governments, the choice of methodology has the potential to change the priority placed on locating cemeteries. Given this, using census tract data would provide NCA with more precise information on the unserved veteran population, which would better inform NCA's decisions on where to invest resources.

VA's rural burial strategy includes four of the eight elements required by the law—for example, it includes a timeline and cost estimates for establishing new burial grounds under the rural initiative. In contrast, another two required elements are only partially included in the strategy, and the two remaining elements are not included at all. For instance, the strategy does not include information on the number or locations of unserved rural veterans, or a national map showing the locations and number of all unserved veterans. In addition, NCA does not have a plan to further address those elements that are only partially included or not included in the strategy, although officials acknowledge the requirement to do so. Were NCA to leverage the use of census tract data in completing the burial strategy, it would be better positioned to fully address these requirements when it provides its strategy to Congress. Having a plan to deal with these remaining requirements would also help VA ensure that it is meeting its goals and objectives, while also being in compliance with applicable laws and regulations.

Why GAO Did This Study

VA estimates that approximately 10 percent of the veterans in the United States, or over 2.1 million veterans, did not have reasonable access to burial options in a veterans cemetery at the end of fiscal year 2013. In 2012, VA announced an initiative to improve access to burial options for veterans living in rural areas. Subsequently, in Public Law 113-6, Congress mandated that VA develop a strategy to serve the burial needs of rural veterans. The law also mandated GAO to review VA's strategy to ensure that it included all of the elements required by the law.

This report includes, among other things, an evaluation of the extent to which (1) NCA's methodology identifies whether veterans have reasonable access to burial options and supports future cemetery location decisions, and (2) VA's rural burial strategy includes the eight elements required by law. GAO reviewed NCA's methodology for estimating the percentage of veterans who have reasonable access to burial options for fiscal year 2017. GAO also reviewed VA's rural burial strategy, and spoke with agency officials responsible for developing and implementing the rural burial strategy.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends that VA use census tract data to determine its unserved veteran population. VA disagreed, believing that its current methodology is sufficient. GAO maintains that census tract data would provide more precise information to inform future decisions and continues to believe the recommendation is valid, which GAO discusses in the report. GAO also recommends that VA develop and implement a plan to meet the reporting requirements, and VA agreed to do so.

For more information, contact Brian J. Lepore at (202) 512-4523 or leporeb@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Priority recommendation

    Comments: VA disagreed with our recommendation. Although VA agreed that census tract data was more precise than the county-level data NCA was using, the department disagreed that using this more precise data to make decisions would lead to different outcomes. Instead, VA believed that NCA's methodology of using county-level data was sufficient for estimating the number of served and unserved veterans. We disagree and are skeptical of VA's assertion that using more precise data to identify served and unserved veterans would have no effect on the outcome of VA's decisions about cemetery locations or prioritization. Therefore, we maintain that our recommendation is still valid. As of March 2019, VA must provide evidence that it is using census tract data with its own mapping software to analyze the number of veterans served to fully implement this recommendation.

    Recommendation: To better enable NCA to meet its mission of providing reasonable access to burial options at veterans cemeteries, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs should direct the Under Secretary for Memorial Affairs to use the capability of NCA's existing software to estimate the served and unserved veteran populations using census tract data.

    Agency Affected: Department of Veterans Affairs

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In our September 2014 report on the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) rural burial strategy, we found that the strategy did not include data to address all 8 of the reporting requirements from the Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act, 2013. Specifically, the strategy did not include (1) the number of veterans served solely by a cremation-only cemetery, the number of veterans served by state veterans' cemeteries that have residency restrictions, or the number of veterans who live within the 75-mile service area of a veterans cemetery, but who have an actual driving distance greater than 75 miles; (2) an assessment of the gaps in service that limit rural and highly rural veteran burial options; (3) data identifying the number of and geographical areas where rural veterans are not currently served by national or existing state cemeteries; or (4) a national map showing the locations and number of unserved veterans. Consequently, we recommended that VA Develop and implement a plan to fully address 4 of the elements required by the Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act, 2013. VA concurred with our recommendation and implemented a plan to fully address all the reporting elements required by the Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act, 2013. In November 2015, VA provided Congress with the additional information needed to satisfy these 4 reporting elements for its rural veterans burial access strategy. Specifically, VA provided information concerning (1) the number of veterans served solely by a cremation-only cemetery, the number of veterans served by state veterans' cemeteries that have residency restrictions, and an explanation of the feasibility of determining the number of communities that fall within a 75-mile radius of a cemetery, but have an actual driving distance greater than 75 miles; (2) an assessment of the gaps in service that limit rural and highly rural veteran burial options (depicted on maps of the continental United States, Alaska, and Hawaii); (3) data identifying the number of and geographical areas where rural veterans are not currently served by national or existing state cemeteries (depicted on maps of the continental United States, Alaska, and Hawaii); and (4) a national map showing the locations and number of unserved veterans. Taken together, this additional information provides the congressional Appropriations Committees with all of the required data elements and meets the spirit of our recommendation.

    Recommendation: To better enable NCA to meet its mission of providing reasonable access to burial options at veterans cemeteries, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs should direct the Under Secretary for Memorial Affairs to develop and implement a plan to fully address all the elements required by the Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act, 2013, in VA's Rural Veteran Burial Access Strategy, including the estimated number and location of unserved veterans and a national map of cemeteries.

    Agency Affected: Department of Veterans Affairs

 

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