by Tom Zampieri
We returned from our August national convention facing an extremely busy legislative agenda that included several bills that we had been working on since last February.
A variety of unique activities were added to what would have otherwise been a normal fall routine. BVA was one of five Veterans Service Organizations (VSOs) invited to speak on a panel at the annual convention of the National Association of State Directors of Veterans Affairs back on September 17 in Annapolis, Maryland. The very next day I spoke on Traumatic Brain Injury as it relates to vision at a town hall meeting sponsored by the Brain Injury Association.
The House Committee on Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on Health requested that I testify on the subject of VA research programs in a scheduled hearing on October 4. I submitted a written statement and was given five minutes to express our positions orally as part of a panel that also included Paralyzed Veterans of America National Legislative Director Carl Blake and Disabled American Veterans Assistant National Legislative Director Joy Ilem.
During this busy time in September and October, I requested and had opportunities to meet with several key Members of Congress about pending legislation. I met with Members and staff of the House and Senate VA Committees, Committees on Appropriations, and Armed Services Committees. I coordinated these visits with those of other VSOs, professional organizations, and Military Service Organizations.
Another autumn highlight was the final testimony and report to Congress of the Veterans Disability Benefits Commission after more than two years of extensive research and studies regarding potential changes to the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA). The final report consisted of 560 pages, recommending that the Department of Defense (DoD) and VBA overhaul a system that has been in place since the famous Bradley Commission report was completed in 1950.
Center of Excellence and Eye Trauma Registry
On October 29, a special briefing at the Capitol provided critical information to Congressional staffs and the media regarding H.R. 3558, the Military Eye Trauma Treatment Act of 2007, which was introduced with strong bipartisan sponsorship by Representative John Boozman (R-AR-3) on September 18.
Congressman John Boozman, left, with Tom Zampieri at a Congressional briefing on combat-related eye injuries.
The Congressional briefing featured presentations by Major Eric Weichel, Chief of Retinal Surgery at Walter Reed Army Medical Center; Major Cameron Van Roekel, Chief of Low-Vision Optometry at Walter Reed; and Dr. James Orcutt, National VA Program Director for Ophthalmology at VA Central Office. It was sponsored by the American Academy of Ophthalmology, the American Optometric Association, the National Alliance for Eye and Vision Research, Prevent Blindness America, and BVA. H.R. 3558 would create a Center of Excellence within DoD. The Center would focus on the prevention, diagnosis, mitigation, treatment, and rehabilitation of military eye injuries. It would also create a military eye injury registry that would track and coordinate with VA the “Seamless Transition” of those who have experienced such injuries. The House bill was a response to Senate Amendment 2969 introduced on August 3 by Senators John Kerry (D-MA), Chuck Hagel (R-NE), Pete Domenici (R-NM), and Barack Obama (D-IL) in the National Defense Authorization Act. The Senate amendment was attached to the Dignified Treatment of Wounded Warriors Act, which has provisions to improve the care of those experiencing Traumatic Brain Injury and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
A Military Eye Trauma Center of Excellence and Eye Trauma Registry would be an historic first, requiring that all DoD branches report serious eye injuries. The injuries would be entered into a registry, which would then report them to the VA Secretary and to VA Blind Rehabilitation Service (BRS).
The need for a center and registry to treat and track eye injuries is clear to BVA. Between March 2003 and September 2007, 1,126 individuals— Active Duty, National Guard, or Reservists—were transferred from field surgical hospitals to stateside Military Treatment Facilities (MTFs). Some of these wounded have moved back and forth to VA Poly Trauma Centers, then to VA Blind Rehabilitation Centers (BRCs), and in some cases back to MTFs for further surgery and rehabilitation before being sent to medical evaluation boards. Under present circumstances, wounded personnel are not, in many cases, experiencing “Seamless Transitions.”
FY 2008 MILCON/VA
In concert with the other major VSOs, BVA worked diligently to ensure that Congress pass the MILCON/VA FY 2008 appropriations bills. The House and Senate MILCON/VA Appropriations Subcommittees and Conference Committees voted and approved the largest increase in discretionary funding for VA health care in 77 years. However, the legislation became caught up in a larger battle between Congress and the White House over proposed spending for FY 2008.
BVA was successful in securing an additional $12.5 million for BRS within the aforementioned bill. This extra directed funding is a response, in the form of a down payment, to former Secretary Nicholson’s press release last January. The release promised $40 million for the full continuum of care for blind and low vision services between 2008 and 2012.
Under this plan, as explained by the Veterans Health Administration (VHA), in the next three years 54 medical centers would receive approval and centralized funding for implementation of new services, intermediate or advanced, to the blind and visually impaired. A total of 35 full-time Blind Rehabilitation Outpatient Specialists (BROS) would be added, 11 of which would become available next year. We understand that 11 new VIST Coordinator positions will be added next year as well. We hope to know the exact medical centers that will receive these new positions by the time our next Bulletin is printed and distributed.
As has been the case for the past 12 years, the funding for all of this progress at press time was stuck in a Continuing Resolution through December 16. We had hoped that Congress would pass the MILCON/VA appropriations bill immediately upon its return from Thanksgiving recess.
More National Attention on Combat Eye Injuries
BVA continues to see increased public awareness of the needs of combat eye-injured service members and their families. We have been fortunate in being able to conduct interviews ourselves and to help arrange others, resulting in national articles in USA Today in both October and November (see Around BVA). A story published in the Military Times newspapers of October 15 credited BVA’s advocacy efforts with uncovering the large numbers of combat eye injuries that have occurred in Iraq and Afghanistan. Most helpful in our pursuit of this information has been our continued visits with wounded Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) service personnel at Walter Reed.
Unexpected Turns in Legislative Process
What happens when a bill is passed by both the House and Senate? The answer may not be quite as simple as one would think.
Our readers might remember from the last Bulletin that BVA secured passage of H.R. 797, the Dr. James Allen Blinded Veterans Equity Act of 2007. The bill was voted on and passed in the House VA Committee one week after our annual testimony last March. Known to BVA members as the “Paired Organ” bill, the legislation would define legal blindness for a veteran who was service-connected for blindness in one eye and who later developed blindness in the other nonservice-connected eye. The standard would become 20/200 or less compared to the present VBA standard of 5/200.
Following passage in the Committee, H.R. 797 was sent to the House Floor as a standalone piece of legislation. Committee Chairman Bob Filner (D-CA-51) helped speed up the process considerably. On March 21, the bill passed by a vote of 414-0.
On the Senate side, Chairman Daniel Akaka (D-HI) introduced the Paired Organ legislation as S. 1163 in late April. The bill passed in Committee on June 28. Under a suspension rule, the bill passed in the full Senate on November 3.
BVA celebrated for 48 hours, believing that this long legislative battle of more than four years was now history and about to be sent to the White House for a most certain Presidential signature. Unbeknownst to us, however, the Senate had made a change in two sections of the bill before voting on it, requiring a Conference Committee of both the House and Senate to work out the differences. A subsequent vote in both chambers will be necessary all over again before the bill can be sent to the White House.
Two additional bills of interest to BVA are also experiencing some of the same difficulties. The VISTA Bill, H.R. 1240, introduced by Representative Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX-18), would authorize scholarship funds for BRS Instructors and Orientation and Mobility Specialists. The legislation would provide a critical recruitment tool to attract new students from accredited programs to enter into VA employment in exchange for a commitment to work in the VA system.
VISTA passed in Committee on June 28 and passed the full House in July as part of H.R. 1315. Unfortunately, a Senate equivalent has never been voted on in Committee.
The Blind Veterans Equity Act, H.R. 649, sponsored by Thomas Reynolds (R-NY-26), would make a state annuity paid to blinded veterans in New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania immune from Social Security offset.
Because the legislation ended up being a tax issue, it was referred to the House Ways and Means Committee. The bill remained in the Committee without any action until late October, when BVA was suddenly notified that it had been voted on in a Subcommittee and added as an amendment by Representative Jim McDermott (D-WA-7) to a larger Ways and Means bill dealing with veterans tax benefits. We also learned that it had been approved in the full Committee of the House.
Because the original Blind Veterans Equity Act is now wrapped into a bill with bipartisan support, the good news is that it was expected to be voted on in the Senate in December.
There is an aspect of the legislation as currently written that is still not complete, however. Many believe that the annuity should also not be considered as income for VA pension purposes. Since the House VA Committee has legal jurisdiction over pension issues, a separate bill must be drafted and introduced there once again.
According to records I located in BVA files going back to 1992, this has been an ongoing battle for the last 15 years. It appears that at one point the Senate tried to straighten this out but was not successful. Any changes to VA pension laws will not come easily with the “Pay Go Rules” that now govern Congress. Such changes must be accompanied by offsets that will pay for the changes. We expect a real challenge with this legislation and anticipate especially strong objections from Ranking Member Steve Buyer (R-IN-4) unless offsets can be found.
Braille Flag Bill
Representative Todd Tiahrt (R-KS-4) has introduced a bill, H.R. 4169, that would place a tactile Braille American flag at Arlington National Cemetery, a national place of remembrance and honor for our Nation’s veterans and which is visited by an estimated 4 million people annually.
The flag to be used would be donated by the Kansas Braille Transcription Institute, the same organization that has generously donated the flags to our Operation Peer Support convention attendees the past two years.
Tiahrt’s office staff actually reached out to us for our support on this bill. While no promises have been made, both the Cemetery and the Pentagon have responded positively. Preliminary thoughts are that the large bronze flag in Braille could be placed near the Cemetery’s visitors center where it could be easily located.
Both surprisingly and unfortunately, there are only about 14 co-sponsors of this bill, of which Chairman Filner is one. The low number of co-sponsors is surprising given the nonpolitical nature of the bill and the fact that there are virtually no costs associated with it.
The legislation is now on the House Committee agenda but will most likely remain sitting until January. Our hope is that H.R. 4169 could be passed well before Memorial Day so that a Braille flag could be delivered prior to that important holiday.
BVA Testimony Set for March 6
National President Jones will deliver this year’s annual oral testimony before a joint session of the House and Senate Veterans Affairs Committees on Thursday morning, March 6. The session will occur in the Cannon House Office Building and will also include Paralyzed Veterans of America, the Jewish War Veterans, American Ex-POWs, and perhaps two other VSOs. All BVA members are welcome and encouraged to attend whenever feasible.
Prior to the event, we will submit a more lengthy written testimony that will be available online on the House Veterans Affairs Committee website. The purpose of the annual testimony is to give organizations such as BVA the opportunity to outline their legislative priorities for the upcoming year.
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