by Norman Jones
I feel privileged once again to address you, my fellow blinded veterans and friends of BVA, this time regarding national developments that took center stage in our Nation’s Capital on March 6. On that day, I found myself sitting before both Republican and Democratic Members of both the House and Senate Committees on Veterans Affairs while I prepared to outline verbally our organization’s legislative priorities for the upcoming year.
The hearing occurred in the middle of a challenging week that consisted of a visit to VA, transfers from one Congressional office to another, interaction with our National Headquarters staff, and our mid-winter Board business meetings. The week was exhilarating but tiring.
I was scheduled to speak fourth out of the seven organizations present at the hearing. To my right was Lawrence Schulman, National Commander of the Jewish War Veterans. To my left was John Rowan, National President of the Vietnam Veterans of America. Providing moral support behind me were our National Officers, District Directors, National Headquarters staff, and my wife, Dianne.
Despite my shattered nerves, I remained sufficiently calm and collected to be able to alter my report at the last minute in order to avoid repeating what earlier panel members had already emphasized.
Norman Jones, right, with Jewish War Veterans National Commander Lawrence Schulman prior to March 6 testimony on Capitol Hill.
I began my five-minute summary by reminding the Committees that the Blinded Veterans Association is the only Veterans Service Organization chartered by Congress and exclusively dedicated to serving the needs of this unique group of Americans. This is an opening statement that we use frequently in our testimonies on Capitol Hill and is a useful one in introducing BVA to potential Association members and their families across the country. I also noted that BVA recently completed its 63rd year of continuous service to America’s blinded warriors.
Our list of legislative recommendations numbered 22 items in the written document, of which I chose 13 to refer to in my oral presentation. I indicated that if such priorities are acted upon by Congress and VA, the lives of blind and visually impaired veterans from coast to coast and within Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands will most certainly be enhanced.
My points of emphasis began with the concept of “Seamless Transition.” I told the Committees that BVA could not understand why there are so many difficulties in transitioning eye-wounded service personnel from DoD to VA care.
The second item on my list of 13 referred to TBI and its relationship to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Because we expect such injuries to increase, I related BVA’s strong support for TBI and PTSD Centers of Excellence.
My third point concerned Post-Traumatic Vision Syndrome (PTVS), emphasizing the mandatory nature of continued support, research, and education in this relatively new area of study.
Fourth, I expressed BVA’s displeasure with the failure of DoD and VA to establish the means by which health records can be exchanged electronically. I indicated that bureaucratic delays and other obstacles to successful record exchange were unacceptable to America’s blinded veterans.
My fifth recommendation touched on the subject of funding for VA BRS. Acknowledging that the 110th Congress had included $12.5 million in the FY 2008 budget as start-up funds for increased services as per a directive from former VA Secretary R. James Nicholson, I questioned why the FY 2009 budget contained a requested increase of only $5.87 million, far less than the $14.5 million that BVA believes is needed.
Sixth, I brought up the controversial subject of discretionary vs. mandatory/assured funding. I asked how long it would take for us to learn that discretionary funding of VA health care is no way to thank America’s veterans for their service.
My seventh and eighth points referred to specific legislation that Tom Zampieri has been working on for many months. I mentioned that the Vision Impairment Specialist Training Act, or H.R. 1240, had already passed in the House but that the companion bill, S. 1672, needed additional support in the Senate. The Blind Veterans Equity Act, or H.R. 649, also passed in the House. The law provides that state annuities paid to blinded veterans not be counted as income for Social Security Disability Insurance purposes. The way must now be cleared for legislation that does the same for VA pensions.
I also addressed, as my ninth major point, the subject of VA claims backlogs, which now total some 407,000. Although I probably did not have to say anything more, I could not resist recommending that all plausible claims be approved now. Not only are veterans suffering while waiting, they are also dying, I said.
Point ten involved disabled veterans employment. I cited Department of Labor (DOL) statistics showing large differences in the unemployment rates of disabled veterans, veterans without a disability, and the general population of non-veterans. Sensory-disabled veterans, for example, have an unemployment rate of more than 50 percent. I suggested that VA join hands with DOL to solve this problem.
My 11th point was one that we raise almost automatically and as a tradition now. Empty beds at BRCs due to shortages in instructors result in longer waiting times. This is particularly discouraging when BRCs have offered the best in world-class service for 61 years. I told the Committees that BRC chiefs inform BVA that funds are usually available eventually, but that they frequently come late and force new programs to be late or to be put on a shelf for future use.
I also addressed as Points 12 and 13 the urgent need to expand nationwide the highly successful but often overextended VIST and VICTORS (Visual Impairment Center to Optimize Remaining Sight) programs. We now understand from experience just how important the VIST Coordinator positions and the VIST Coordinators themselves really are. We also attempted in our written testimony to educate Members of Congress in even greater detail about programs and concepts such as VICTORS, VISOR (Visual Impairment Services Outpatient Rehabilitation), and BROS. We emphasized the importance of these programs to blinded veterans.
I hope that our Bulletin readers are now even a little more informed about the numerous issues for which BVA has taken a stand on their behalf. I look forward to meeting as many blinded veterans as possible at our 63rd National Convention, where we might well discuss these issues in greater depth and with even more passion that I can accomplish here.
Regarding our convention, I feel compelled to ask if all of us are now in the process of packing, at least mentally, for a trip to the Valley of the Sun? The physical packing should be a snap, with swimwear and plenty of sunscreen at the top of the list. Our convention goal is to conduct as much business and to simultaneously have as much fun as possible!