by Tom Zampieri
Annual Testimony, Paired Organ Bill
Soon after our last Update we entered into still another stage of extremely hectic legislative activity. The work began with our annual testimony, submitted in written format and delivered orally by National President Belote on March 8 before a joint session of the House and Senate Committees on Veterans Affairs.
We then had great success with passage of H.R. 797, the Dr. James Allen Blinded Veterans Equity Act of 2007. This bill passed a vote in the House Committee one week following our testimony on Capitol Hill. Referred to as the Paired Organ Bill in my previous Updates, the legislation seeks to define service-connected legal blindness for veterans who are blinded in one eye and later develop blindness in the other nonservice-connected eye. The Veterans Benefits Administration’s new definition of blindness would be 20/200 or less, compared with the current standard of 5/200.
In a most unusual and ironic turn of events, H.R. 797 was sent to the House Floor as a stand-alone piece of legislation on March 22. This occurred through the assistance and support of House Chairman Bob Filner (D-CA-51). The bill was passed by a 414-0 margin in the 110th Congress after a two-year struggle that included our inability to get even a hearing in the 109th session.
In the three days leading up to the presentation of our testimony, the BVA Legislative Committee (Neil Appleby, Dr. Norman Jones, Jr., and Dr. Roy Kekahuna) made the Paired Organ legislation a priority. Together, we made key visits to members of the House of Representatives, especially those on the Committee on Veterans Affairs. We specifically asked members for their support after explaining the bill.
Senator Johnny Isakson (R-GA) greets constituent and National Vice President Norman Jones during a BVA Legislative Committee visit to the Senator's office on March 7.
Roy was able to meet and shake hands with Representative Tammy Baldwin (D-WI-2). He thanked her for sponsoring the Paired Organ legislation and for persevering in efforts to get the bill passed. These efforts were, in retrospect, very important. BVA sincerely appreciates Congresswoman Baldwin’s support.
Neil, Norman, Roy, and I also made several visits to Senate offices March 5-7. I believe that these visits were also helpful to the Paired Organ legislation. Senate VA Chairman Daniel Akaka (D-HI) introduced a similar bill, S. 1163, on April 19. A bipartisan group of Senators are co-sponsoring Akaka’s bill: Veterans Affairs Committee members Sherrod Brown (D-OH), James Webb (D-VA), and Johnny Isakson (R-GA). Co-sponsors outside the Committee are Senators Russ Feingold (D-WI) and Chuck Hagel (R-NE).
BVA greatly appreciates Senator Akaka’s original sponsorship of the bill. We are also grateful for the bipartisan support of the co-sponsors. We look forward to a Senate hearing in the next month and a possible vote in early June.
Another exciting new bill, H.R. 1240, is the Vision Impairment Specialist Training Act (VISTA). Introduced by Representative Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX-18), the legislation would authorize the inclusion of Blind Instructors and Orientation & Mobility Instructors in the VA scholarship program.
H.R. 1240 has 19 co-sponsors and has been referred to the VA Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity. It seeks to attract new students from accredited programs to enter VA employment by partially paying the loans of students who, in return, would work within the VA health care system for at least three years.
Public Law 104-262, the Eligibility Reform Act of 1996, already requires VA to maintain its capacity to provide specialized rehabilitation services to disabled veterans. This requirement cannot be met unless there are sufficient Blind Rehabilitation Outpatient Specialists (BROS). Since BVA was successful last year in seeing through the passage of the bill authorizing VA to create 35 new BROS positions, H.R. 1240 is now extremely important in providing an incentive for quality individuals to occupy these positions. We are doing everything possible to provide Congress with more information about the significance of this bill.
Congressman Thomas Reynolds (R-NY-26) has introduced H.R. 697, the “Blind Veterans Fairness Act.” The bill would remove the state annuity paid to blinded veterans in New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania from Social Security offset. Being a tax issue, this bill was referred to the House Ways and Means Committee and faces a difficult battle as it affects only the small number of blinded veterans in those four states.
Because members of Congress outside the aforementioned states do not have a direct interest, moving this bill forward will be a tough challenge. There are, however, 30 co-sponsors. We appreciate Congressman Reynolds’ efforts to exempt veterans from a state annuity being counted as additional “taxed income” when the annuity is meant to be a gift by the states to help blinded veterans.
More Funding for VA BRS
Some of our strongest advocates in the previous session of the Senate attempted unsuccessfully to secure and direct additional funding for VA blind rehabilitation programs. This same group circulated a new 110th Congress “Dear Colleague” letter on April 19. The letter, which contained 18 bipartisan signatures, called for $10 million in additional funds for VA Blind Rehabilitation Service (BRS).
Senator John Kerry (D-MA) was successful in adding Senate Budget Amendment 615 to the FY 2008 budget bill. The amendment stated that support for the additional funds is a critical step in implementing the full Continuum of Care of blind rehabilitation services in each VISN. This amendment was accepted on the Senate floor. Kerry sent the aforementioned letter soon after. It specifically requested that the Chairman of the Senate MILCON/VA Appropriations Committee include, in the FY 2008 budget, the $10 million to fund the full continuum of outpatient blind services.
The War Supplemental being debated at press time also includes, if passed, another $10 million for the remainder of FY 2007. As VA works on implementing the BROS bill and other outpatient blind and low vision programs, this funding could prevent a number of unnecessary future delays.
A Constant State of Flux
Only recently has the media focused so intensely on health care for our returning service personnel. Foremost were the stories on the conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
Stemming from such publicity has been the creation of several VA and Department of Defense commissions, task forces, and committees. Some members of Congress are already calling for changes in the Seamless Transition of benefits, health care, and specialized programs. We will update you as additional information becomes available.
Because our Bulletin is published just four times annually, timely information is most easily accessed through our Legislative Alerts, which I am now attempting to distribute on a weekly basis. If you have still not registered to receive these Alerts, please do so immediately by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Include in the email your name, email address, postal address, and your regional group affiliation.
I look forward to providing even greater detail to our members, face-to-face or as a group, in Albuquerque.
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