by Tom Zampieri
A Flurry of Winter Activity
The winter months were hectic but productive ones for BVA. From mid-February until the end of April, we participated in 21 hearings in either the House Committee on Veterans Affairs or as part of the MILCON/VA appropriations hearings.
President Norman Jones delivered our annual oral testimony before a joint session of the House and Senate Committees on Veterans Affairs on March 6. The hearing was one of the first ever to be webcast live on the House Committee website. Beginning March 30, nearly all Committee and Subcommittee hearings were to be similarly webcast and archived for later reference.
Left to right with Senator John Kerry (D-MA), Dr. George Stocking, Dr. Norman Jones, Dr. Roy Kekahuna, and Past National President Neil Appleby.
A written document with additional details and recommendations was submitted the week before the oral testimony and entered into the Congressional Record. As is now customary with all testimony, the document was also uploaded to the House Committee website and is available at www.veterans.house.gov/hearings
BVA’s recommendations at the end of the written testimony totaled 22. Norman and his fellow presenters from other Veterans Service Organizations (VSOs) emphasized access to health care and benefits. Members of the Committees appeared to accept the calls for assistance, assuring improved delivery of benefits and services for veterans and future decreases in claims backlogs.
TBI and Visual Impairment
On April 2, I represented BVA as I testified before the Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations on the subject of Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) and visual impairment. The purpose of the hearing was to examine the issues surrounding the level of Department of Defense (DoD)/Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) care of eye-injured service members returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Because of BVA’s leadership in this area, Committee Chairman Bob Filner (D-CA-52) asked us to direct the hearing, which consisted of my remarks and those of Staff Sergeant Brian Pearce, U.S. Army (Ret.); his wife, Angela; and Petty Officer Glenn Minney, U.S. Navy (Ret.). Both Brian and Glenn attended the BVA 62nd National Convention in Albuquerque as part of Operation Peer Support.
A second panel included several medical professionals and executives with experience in treating vision loss due to TBI while a third panel consisted of representatives from both VA and DoD.
The hearing highlighted the unprecedented large numbers of war wounded who have been shifted to and from DoD/VA medical facilities with a less than “Seamless Transition” of care. The testimonies from Brian and Glenn served as cases in point.
Military Eye Trauma Center
The major premise in my aforementioned testimony was that Congress must immediately ensure the establishment and full funding of the Military Eye Trauma Center of Excellence and Eye Trauma Registry. I emphasized that doing so would provide veterans with eye injuries a better chance of receiving all of the needed care to which they are entitled.
The Military Eye Trauma Center of Excellence and Eye Trauma Registry will be a DoD entity to track eye injuries and communicate them to VA. It should monitor the transition of service personnel from DoD to VA care. Between March 2003 and January 2008, 1,348 Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) combat eye-wounded active duty, National Guard, and reserve members were transferred from field surgical hospitals to stateside Military Treatment Facilities (MTFs). Some of these wounded went back and forth to and from VA Poly Trauma Centers, VA residential Blind Rehabilitation Centers (BRCs), and MTFs for surgery and rehabilitation.
BVA contends that the eye-wounded and TBI patients with visual complications must be tracked in a central registry if the “Seamless Transition” ideal is truly to be achieved. The Military Eye Trauma Center of Excellence and Eye Trauma Registry will be an administrative and information technology center with virtual clinical functions as well. It will be an historic first in mandating that all military branches report to the registry all serious eye injuries or visual impairments requiring treatment. The injuries will then automatically be reported to the VA Secretary and to VA Blind Rehabilitation Service (BRS).
The Military Eye Trauma Center and Eye Trauma Registry will update clinical “best practices” and ensure that the eye-injured are screened appropriately at the proper location. It will also result in the education of an increased number of providers on the subject of eye injuries and TBI. The Center will also bring attention to the need for future research on eye and vision trauma.
The Pentagon has thus far delayed the creation of the Center, citing a lack of Congressional funding within the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) passed back on January 23. The frustration for BVA is that although the Wounded Warrior section of NDAA already contains the necessary provisions and more than $60 million to improve the care of the Traumatic Brain Injured and those with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, it does not include the $5 million necessary to implement the Eye Trauma Center of Excellence.
At press time, BVA had mounted an all-out campaign to educate Members of Congress regarding the importance of funding the Center. We are also working with several key organizations to ensure that this funding comes sometime during the spring. We hope to provide a great many more details about this effort in the next Bulletin.
Disability Benefits Improvements
The second session of the 110th Congress brought several new VA disability benefits. They resulted from legislation that, in turn, had its origins in the 118 recommendations of the recent Veterans Disability Benefits Commission (VDBC) report and the Dole/Shalala report.
The change in the current Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) disability system for service-connected ratings has, by itself, been a significant part of the work of the 110th Congress on behalf of veterans. The adequate, timely, and dependable funding each year for VA health care recommended by VDBC and Dole-Shalala is critical to all disabled veterans.
Additional BRS Progress
BVA was pleased with a VA report stating that more than 35 VA Medical Centers had received approval and centralized funding for a variety of basic, intermediate, and advanced blind or low-vision programs. We were also happy to hear that 11 full-time Visual Impairment Service Team (VIST) Coordinators and 20 new full-time Blind Rehabilitation Outpatient Specialists (BROS) will be added during the current fiscal year.
The Veterans Health Administration (VHA) is identifying 10 new sites for BROS and other outpatient programs as part of its Continuum of Care. Construction of the Long Beach VA BRC has already begun and in October the new BRC in Biloxi, Mississippi, will open with 25 beds. The latter will feature components of both inpatient and outpatient programs. BVA will continue to keep our members informed about these new sites in future issues of the Bulletin and through our emailed Legislative Alerts.
More on the Braille Flag
The House of Representatives passed H.R. 4169 back on February 14. The legislation approved the placement of a bronze Braille Flag at Arlington National Cemetery. A bill is currently working its way through the Senate.
Even without the legislation, the Military Command of the Cemetery has already decided to clear space at the visitors center for this unique piece, designed and crafted by the Kansas Braille Transcription Institute. We hope to share photos of the Braille flag with Bulletin readers and our website users following our participation in this year’s Memorial Day remembrance ceremony at Arlington.
Travel Reimbursement Gets Needed Boost
Limited space in our last Update precluded us from reminding our readers that more than a million eligible veterans saw their mileage reimbursement rate more than double earlier this year. The reimbursement applies to travel to VA medical facilities.
The increase from 11 cents to 28.5 cents per mile, the first in more than 30 years, resulted from a directive from newly confirmed VA Secretary Dr. James B. Peake, who had promised the change during his Senate confirmation hearing last December. The change took effect on February 1.
While increasing the payment, VA, as mandated by law, also increased the deductible amounts applied to certain mileage reimbursements. The new deductibles are $7.77 for a one-way trip and $15.54 for a round trip, with a maximum of $46.62 per calendar month. The deductibles can be waived if they cause a financial hardship to the veteran.
The rate change should offset some of the increasing fuel and other transportation costs to veterans as they travel to obtain care.