Fast Facts

The Department of Veterans Affairs is responsible for ensuring that veterans have reasonable access to burial options in a national or state veterans’ cemetery. It defines reasonable access as a cemetery within 75 miles of veterans’ homes. It estimated that about 92% of veterans had reasonable access in fiscal year 2018.

VA’s National Cemetery Administration has a plan to establish 18 new national cemeteries to increase access. However, it is years behind schedule for opening new cemeteries and its cost estimates for some sites have more than doubled.

We recommended the National Cemetery Administration adopt better cost-estimating practices.

A flag and flowers in a cemetery

A flag and flowers in a cemetery

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Highlights

What GAO Found

Within the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), the National Cemetery Administration (NCA) has a plan to establish 18 new national cemeteries to increase reasonable access to burial options for veterans. NCA defines reasonable access as a national or state veterans' cemetery being located within 75 miles of veterans' homes. Key parts of NCA's plan include establishing 13 urban and rural initiative national cemeteries and awarding grant funds to state applicants for establishing new state veterans' cemeteries.

NCA has made limited progress in implementing its plan to increase burial access and is years behind its original schedule for opening new cemeteries. For example, NCA has opened only two of its planned urban and rural initiative sites and is behind its original schedule for the other 11 (see fig. below). The primary factor delaying NCA's completion of these cemeteries has been challenges in acquiring suitable land.

National Cemetery Administration's Timeline for Urban and Rural Initiative Sites, as of September 2019

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NCA has also been challenged in producing accurate estimates of construction costs for most of its rural initiative sites. Cost estimates have increased more than 200 percent (from about $7 million to $24 million) for these sites, and NCA's guidance for developing cost estimates for the cemeteries does not fully incorporate the 12 steps identified in cost-estimating leading practices—such as conducting a risk and uncertainty analysis or a sensitivity analysis. As a result, NCA is not well positioned to provide reliable and valid cost estimates to better inform decisions to enhance veterans' cemetery access.

Why GAO Did This Study

The VA is responsible for ensuring that veterans have reasonable access to burial options in a national or state veterans' cemetery. In fiscal year 2018 VA estimated that about 92 percent of veterans had reasonable access to burial options, which was an increase from 90 percent in fiscal year 2014 but short of its goal of 96 percent by the end of fiscal year 2017.

The House Appropriations Committee has expressed concerns that there are geographic pockets where veterans remain unserved by burial options. House Report 115-188 accompanying a bill for the Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 2018, includes a provision for GAO to examine veterans' access to burial options.

This report (1) describes VA's plan for increasing reasonable access to burial options for veterans and (2) assesses VA's progress in implementing its plan and any challenges experienced. GAO reviewed applicable VA and NCA documents, compared NCA's cost-estimating practices with GAO's cost-estimating 12 steps, and met with cognizant officials regarding NCA's efforts to provide reasonable access to burial options.

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Recommendations

GAO recommends that NCA fully adopt cost-estimating leading practices into its procedures to assist in improving its cost estimates for establishing cemeteries. NCA concurred with our recommendation.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Veterans Affairs The Secretary of Veterans Affairs should ensure that the Under Secretary for Memorial Affairs update its cost-estimating procedures for cemetery construction projects to fully incorporate the 12 steps identified in the GAO Cost Estimating and Assessment Guide: Best Practices for Developing and Managing Capital Program Costs.
Open
VA concurred with GAO's September 2019 recommendation. As of May 2021, VA has made some progress towards implementing our recommendation, but additional steps need to be taken. Specifically, as of May 2021, VA provided its revised 1) Manual for Preparation of Cost Estimates & Related Documents for VA Facilities (Manual) (February 2019), 2) Prioritization Scoring/Estimation model used in its annual Minor Construction programming process; and 3) documentation from a project that used criteria from GAO's Cost Guide. According to VA, these documents fully incorporate the 12 steps identified in GAO's Cost Guide. In August 2021, GAO reviewed 7 of the 12 steps that were previously scored as partially met or not met and found that VA had made improvements in only 3 of the 12 steps. GAO did not reassess the other five steps because VA had either fully met or substantially met them. Regarding the areas where we believe further actions are needed by VA, while some of the example documents VA provided showed specific instances of the best practices being implemented for individual projects, VA did not provide information showing that VA policy or guidance existed to ensure that these best practices would be implemented and tracked on a regular basis. Until these best practices are incorporated into VA's guidance, there is no assurance that they will be consistently used. We will continue to monitor this area and will update when VA provides us further information on what actions it has taken in response to our recommendation.

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