BVA Current Achievement

The Blinded Veterans Association (BVA) on September 29, 2016 praised the bi-partisan effort in both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate to avoid a government shutdown that has also resulted in the passage of key legislation for veterans with vision loss. The legislation, a Continuing Resolution that extends current government funding levels until December 9, ends seven years of BVA advocacy during three sessions of Congress to give the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) the statutory authority to provide travel benefits to catastrophically disabled, nonservice- connected blind and visually impaired veterans seeking rehabilitation services at VA facilities. The legislation applies similarly to amputees and individuals with spinal cord injuries. Click here to read a full account of the legislation.

Historical Achievements

Since the very beginning, BVA has worked tirelessly with the now Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to assure high-quality, comprehensive medical and rehabilitative services/benefits for blinded veterans. When the U.S. Army discontinued its blind rehabilitation services for the war blind at the end of World War II, BVA played an instrumental role in persuading VA to assume the responsibility for their care and rehabilitation.

As early as 1947, BVA adopted resolutions in assembled conventions calling for the establishment of a comprehensive residential Blind Rehabilitation Center (BRC). The facility would assist blinded veterans in their adjustment to vision loss and the acquisition of adaptive skills. Due in large measure to BVA’s efforts, the first BRC was open on July 4, 1948. As the numbers of war-blinded veterans increased with the onset of the Korean and Vietnam Wars, BVA pressured VA to expand the number of BRCs nationally. Today there are ten comprehensive residential BRCs across the VA Healthcare system with two new centers opening in 2011. As BRC programs grew and evolved, BVA convinced Congress and VA to expand eligibility for blind rehabilitation services to veterans whose blindness was not the result of their military service. Literally thousands of blinded veterans have received rehabilitation assistance as a result of this achievement.

BVA also played an instrumental role in the establishment of the Visual Impairment Service Team (VIST) Program. Recognizing that the isolating effects of blindness and the fact that blinded veterans were not accessing all the benefits and services for which they were eligible, the Association participated in a pilot outreach program in 1967. The purpose of the program was to identify eligible veterans and encourage them to take full advantage of VA benefits and services. The key professional staff person on the VIST team is the VIST Coordinator. In the early years, this position was only part-time. BVA quickly recognized that a part-time VIST Coordinator was not adequate to coordinate all the services required by blinded veterans and urged VA to make these positions full-time. VA responded by establishing six full-time VIST Coordinator positions in 1978. BVA persisted in advocating for more full-time positions and convinced Congress to provide funding for additional positions. The organization was successful in convincing Congress to earmark $5 million in the 1995 Fiscal Year VA Appropriation for Blind Rehabilitation Service (BRS). These dollars enabled BRS to establish 15 Blind Rehabilitation Outpatient Specialists (BROS) positions. Today that number has grown from 24 staff in 2005 to 75 full time positions today. These Orientation and Mobility Instructors often have duel certification and provide veterans with independent training skills in clinics, hospitals, and in the veterans’ home environment.  BVA has secured legislation in May 2010 that students enrolled in university programs that offer degrees as BROS will now be included in VA scholarship assistance program if they qualify. Our work has also resulted in meeting BVA goals to increase the number of full time VIST now to 118 positions with another 43 part-time VIST positions.

As an active member and supporter of the Visual Impairment Advisory Board (VIAB), established by the Under Secretary for Health, BVA recommended that a full continuum of vision rehabilitation services is established. The adoption of this recommendation was a major achievement. In January 2007, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs approved the establishment of a full continuum of vision rehabilitation care and committed $40 million over the next three years. These 55 new low vision and advanced blind outpatient programs with 247 new rehabilitative staff including 68 low vision optometrists, all now benefit our 49,248 enrolled blinded veterans with war injuries and age related degenerative eye diseases and will also assist the new returning eye wounded from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan at this critical juncture with specialized services they require.

Every VA Poly Trauma Center now has BROS assigned to begin mobility training for the new injured from the wars as a result of BVA’s legislative efforts in the past three years. VA Blind Service has now the largest number of professional rehabilitative staff at any time in history, providing services to blinded veterans.

The BVA Director of Government Relations continued active efforts to influence legislation to secure the necessary resources to provide blinded veterans and family members the health care services and benefits they need. BVA was invited to present blinded veterans' priority issues to Congress eight times in hearings before House Veterans Affairs Committee before this congress, meeting frequently with other veteran service organizations, members of congress, various committee staff, other disability advocacy associations, and representatives from Department of Defense, and Department of Veterans Affairs. Key email legislative updates are sent to BVA Board members, the Executive Director, and regional group contacts. BVA has gained strong support on a variety of issues from several members of Congress, while actively monitoring and supporting the wide variety of legislation impacting veterans and families.

BVA has worked diligently the past couple years to ensure VA MILCON/VA appropriations were increased to meet the needs of blinded veterans programs. BVA efforts secured $20 million from Congress towards VA Blind Service funding in veterans' healthcare budgets for the planned Full Continuum of Outpatient VA Blind Rehabilitative and Low Vision programs. The total BRS funding levels have risen from $94,000,000 in 2007 to budget of $126,378,000 in FY (fiscal year) 2011.

For many years, VA was the employer of choice for Blind Rehabilitation Specialists (Orientation and Mobility Professionals and Rehabilitation Teachers). When this dynamic changed, BVA stepped in, to play a critical role in convincing VA to reclassify, in Human Resources Title 38, the Blind Rehabilitation Specialist position. The result was a higher salary, improved recruitment, and greater retention for the position, thus restoring VA as the employer of choice and insuring delivery of high-quality, comprehensive services.

VA BRS was able to provide the necessary resources from the $5 million to establish Computer Access Training Sections (CATS) initially at the five largest BRCs, but now Computer Access Training is provided at all ten BRCs. Eligible veterans are issued appropriate new computer equipment to accomplish their stated goals along with other visual magnification and reading devices, and global positioning technology guides.

Due to BVA efforts, legislation to eliminate the co-payment for catastrophically disabled veterans who are non-service connected, to meet and resolve long standing financial barrier to blinded veterans accessing rehabilitative services, the elimination of these co-payments for catastrophically disabled non-service connected veterans who must make co-payments of $1,340 for admission for inpatient rehabilitative services.

In passage of “The Caregiver’s and Omnibus Health Services Act” S 1963, section 511 when it was signed into law by President Obama May 5, 2010 the elimination of these burdensome co-payments for non-service connected blinded veterans was key legislative success and through the implementation of this new policy, VA has determined that any medical care, prescription medications, or rehabilitative care will be exempt for co-payments for any catastrophically disabled veterans, effective May 5, 2010.

On the benefits side of VA, BVA has been instrumental in improving the Disability Rating Schedule as it relates to visual impairment and blindness. At one point, for example, VA did not accurately rate the severity of blindness when combined with hearing loss. BVA’s efforts have brought about improvements in this particular rating. Blind and visually impaired veterans are now considered more severely disabled if they have also experienced hearing loss.

More recently, in 2007 BVA was successful in advocating for change in the Paired Organ Section of Title 38 to more equitably compensate veterans who suffered due to service-connection for one eye being blinded and subsequently lost vision in their non-service connected eye. Previously a war blinded veteran who was service connected for loss of vision in one eye, would need to have vision loss of 5/200 to obtain higher rating for loss if his non-service connected eye if they became blind. The new change allows for the acuity standard of 20/200 or less to be applied as the standard for increasing rating for “paired organ section” improving the disability rating for blinded veterans from 30% to 70 % with this change.

BVA also played a leading role in securing Dependency & Indemnity Compensation (DIC) benefits for surviving spouses and dependent children of 100 percent service-connected disabled veterans. Prior to 1978, DIC benefits were paid only when a veteran died of his/her service-connected condition. The change pushed by BVA made it possible for surviving spouses and dependent children to be eligible for DIC benefits, regardless of the cause of the veteran’s death. Still believing that DIC benefits were not equitable because they were based on a veterans rank while in service and not their disability, BVA lead the efforts for further reform. The Association succeeded once again as the quality of the DIC benefit was improved for surviving spouses and/or dependent children of disabled veterans.

BVA influenced the establishment of the Adaptive Housing Grant, administered by the Veterans Benefits Administration, and the initiation of the Home Improvement and Structural Alteration grant administered by the Veterans Health Administration. Both of the grants have assisted severely visually impaired and blinded veterans in the attainment of affordable housing. Home Improvements and Adaptive Housing grants for veterans has been priority and goal of BVA for several years. The introduction and passage of the Disabled Veterans Home Improvement Act of 2009 (HR 1293) resulted in improvements in the HISA grant program, the first increase since 1992. This act increased the HISA grant from the current maximum amount of $4,100 for service connected and $1,200 for non-service connected veterans up to $6,800 for service connected and $2,000 for non-service connected veterans. BVA is also working to get VBA to provide certificate of eligibility to veteran at the time of service connection determination to avoid delays for auto grants and adaptive housing program grants. Because of BVA testimony on the issue of Special Adaptive Housing SHA grants last October and again in June 2010, another possible success has occurred with introduction of HR 5360 in May, 2010 to change Special Housing Adaptive Grant SHA standards, currently restricted to 5/200 acuity standard as blindness, to the nationally recognized blindness standards of 20/200 or 20 degrees of field loss or less, to meet SHA grant for the $12,560 grant. The bill would increase that amount to $13,560 in HR 5360 which was voted on July 15 and House VA Economic Subcommittee Committee passed. The prospects are good now for full passage of this by the end of this year, further improving home structural grants for disabled blinded veterans. 

In 2007 BVA convinced Congress because of large numbers of combat eye wounded returning from Iraq to improve the Seamless Transition of eye injured, wounded, or those with traumatic brain injuries and visual complications by establishing in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) of FY 2008 Section 1623, creating the joint Department of Defense (DoD) and VA Vision Center of Excellence (VCE). Time has been significantly devoted over the past two years on improving the funding, staffing, and DoD implementation of the VCE, and Eye Trauma Registry that BVA legislatively created. Fighting to establish this new defense center of excellence for vision has meant advocating for staffing, information technology support, operational support, and even for site selection for the headquarters. This required ensuring congressional appropriations of $4.3 million, design plans and a time table for construction, site selection inside the current Bethesda National Naval Medical Center, and pressure on DoD. BVA has successfully argued that improved cooperation towards improving the Seamless Transition of combat eye wounded and TBI with visual dysfunction will benefit service members, veterans, and families in obtaining follow-up medical services, improved outcomes, and research. BVA has continued to raise awareness for Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) veterans with both penetrating eye trauma and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) visual dysfunction to ensure that screening, diagnosis, treatment, and vision research occurs.

BVA, along with other VSOs dedicated to serving our Nation’s veterans, are pleased to join in supporting the programmatic request of continuing directed funding in FY 2011 for the Peer Reviewed Medical Research-Vision (PRMR-Vision) extramural research line item, funding in 2008 and 2009 was $4 million and the target is now for this eye trauma research program is at $10 million. This program, which is managed by DoD’s Telemedicine and Advanced Technology Research Center (TATRC), was initially created by Congress in FY 2008. In FY 2010, it was funded at lower level of $3.75 million but because of growing awareness of the need for this other defense research funds were added. Defense-related vision trauma research warrants a more vigorous investment, especially since BVA’s advocacy carried to the top of DoD as Defense Secretary Robert Gates in his Quadrennial Defense Report to Congress in February 2010 has identified research into Restoration of Sight and Eye-care as one of four top priorities for funding, along with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Traumatic Brain Injury, and Amputee Prosthetics.

The Veterans Caregiver and Veterans Health Services Act 2009 also included new landmark provisions to make payments to service connected disabled veterans every month with disabilities that require a family member to stay at home and provide care. This legislation effective September 11, 2001 provides for health care, counseling, support and respite care for the veteran and caregiver. Not only are the current generation of OIF and OEF service connected veterans included in this, but previous generations of severely war injured will eventually by FY 2011 be eligible for these payments once VA establishes regulatory policy. BVA and other VSOs were vital in the major effort to obtain passage of these bills and will make substantial differences in the social and economic well being for blinded veterans for decades.

BVA has also been actively involved on special work groups established by VA Prosthetics & Sensory Aids Service (PSAS) to develop prescription recommendations and specifications for new prosthetic appliances for blinded veterans. BVA maintains representatives on the national VA work group charged with developing various specifications and updating the issuance of new handbook recommendations for various computers and other adaptive technology for the blind. Tom Miller represents BVA on the Aids for the Blind, Prosthetics, as well as the Audible Prescription Reading Devices Work Groups and as Executive Director has been directly engaged frequently with VA high level officials on improving access for veterans to a wide number of new devices and services for blinded veterans.
Since 1945, BVA has worked collaboratively with organizations of and for the blind to improve the quality of life for all blind Americans and assisted in the enactment of American Disabilities Act (ADA) twenty years ago and other disability access policy changes. BVA is represented on a wide variety of federal and state advisory committees within such agencies as the VA Central Office in Washington, the Department of Labor, the Office of Personnel Management, the Small Disabled Veterans Business Administration, the VA Rehabilitation Research and Development Center, and the Rehabilitation Research and Training Center on Blindness and Low Vision at Mississippi State University.

Today, BVA continues visits with blinded OIF and OEF service members and their family members at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and Naval National Medical Center. The long delays in medical evaluation boards continues to be major issue for BVA and we work in both assisting them with obtaining all necessary specialized rehabilitative medical services and with the development of the VA benefits claims that they file. Our BVA Field Service staff is assisting several of them with claims for these recent war injured veterans to ensure the benefits they deserve are obtained in a timely manner.

BVA's Operation Peer Support (OPS) program for blinded OIF and OEF service members and their families began as a way for recently blinded veterans to connect with their peers from earlier conflicts for advice and support. From the eight initial participants who attended the first OPS BVA convention in 2007, the program has grown to include dozens of alumni, an international exchange program with our sister organization Blind Veterans UK, and other events. The success of OPS has resulted in positive newspaper, radio, and television stories on this BVA program and drawn more attention to the need for improved coordination of eye injured between DoD and VA along with new research and benefits. Many participants have found the program so helpful that they have returned year after year to mentor fellow veterans.

BVA, in concert with the other major VSOs, has continued its long history of tackling legislative issues to improve health care access and benefits for all blinded veterans and was recognized for its years of service with House Joint Resolution #80, declaring our founding date March 28th "Blinded Veterans Day", passed by both the House of Representatives and Senate and signed by President Obama on March 24, 2010. BVA takes advantage of every opportunity to present the special needs of America’s blinded veterans before policymakers at all levels of government. Therefore, the greater the number of members of our association, the louder our voice.