Data Needed to Help Improve Decisions Concerning Veterans' Access to Burial Options
GAO-14-537: Published: Sep 9, 2014. Publicly Released: Sep 9, 2014.
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.
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Recommendations for Executive Action
Comments: On Nov 12, 2014, VA provided an update on the actions taken in response to the recommendation contained in "VETERANS AFFAIRS: Data Needed to Help Improve Decisions Concerning Veterans' Access to Burial Options" (GAO-14-537) released to the Department, September 9, 2014. In its letter, VA noted that it non-concurred with this recommendation, and identified no actions being taken.
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
Comments: On Nov 12, 2014, VA provided an update on the progress it has made in implementing this recommendation, contained in "VETERANS AFFAIRS: Data Needed to Help Improve Decisions Concerning Veterans' Access to Burial Options" (GAO-14-537) released to the Department, September 9, 2014. VA stated that, as previously reported in its response to VA's Office of Inspector General recommendations, the National Cemetery Administration (NCA) is developing a methodology to identify Veterans living in rural areas. VA also stated that NCA was in the process of establishing a new database intended to enable analysis of Veteran demographics at the county, state, regional, and national levels, including identifying each county in the country as either being served (within the 75-mile service area) or unserved by a VA national or VA-funded state Veterans cemetery and the specific cemeteries that provide service to each served county. In its November 2014 response to GAO, VA stated that NCA had completed the development of the new database and was able to produce a preliminary national map. VA stated that NCA management and staff were in the process of validating the accuracy of the information in the database, and that NCA expected to complete that process by the end of the second quarter of FY 2015. After that point, VA stated that it believed that NCA would then be able to publish the national map and address the other remaining elements required by the Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act, 2013.
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