Legislative Update 

by Tom Zampieri

Recent Activities and Priorities

 

The BVA legislative agenda was an extremely busy one in the late spring and into the summer weeks leading up to the national convention, where I presented an overview of the status of several pieces of important legislation to both our Board of Directors and in a special forum with our convention attendees.

Just two weeks prior to our convention, Tom Miller, Steve Beres, and I were able to promote the work of BVA in presentations before some 800 professionals in the blindness field who were in Chicago for the bi-annual convention of the Association for the Education and Rehabilitation for the Blind and Visually Impaired. We made the presentations during a BVA-sponsored general session.

Zampieri addresses legislative advocacy efforts on behalf of blinded veterans at the BVA-hosted general session of AER’s bi-annual conference. Photo courtesy of AER.
Zampieri addresses legislative advocacy efforts on behalf of blinded veterans at the BVA-hosted general session of AER’s bi-annual conference. Photo courtesy of AER.

Steve, an Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF, Afghanistan) veteran and a BVA member now employed by the National Industries for the Blind, received a standing ovation after relating his own experiences in overcoming the challenges of blindness. Tom discussed BVA’s historical accomplishments while I focused on our current advocacy efforts with Congress and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).

Newly appointed Director of Blind Rehabilitation Service (BRS) Gale Watson also joined us on the program. Gale focused on VA rehabilitation programs for blinded veterans in her presentation.
          

Legislative Summary and Funding Issues

 

Several new pieces of legislation were passed in the second session of the 110th Congress as a result of the Veterans Disability Benefits Commission (VDBC), the President’s Dole/Shalala Report, and recommendations from Veterans Service Organizations (VSOs). Because of the growing backlog of claims, the move to change the current Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) disability system for service-connected ratings has, in and of itself, been a large part of the legislative agenda this year.

Another high priority addressed by VSOs this year has been the need for more timely VA appropriations. This is a problem for which VA itself, the White House, and Congress all have responsibility. We again face the fact that in mid-September Congress had not yet passed the Fiscal Year 2009 Military Construction and Veterans Appropriations (MILCON/VA) bill. Just as in the past 17 years, it appears that VA will not have funding for the new fiscal year when it begins on October 1.

What this means is another Continuing Resolution (CR) or set of CRs, which in turn means that VA must forge ahead for the first three or more months of the fiscal year with funding at the previous levels, which may or may not meet the current demand for services.

Although the notion is certainly not a new one, we continue to emphasize that sufficient, timely, and dependable funding each year for quality VA health care and benefits is critical to ensuring its accessibility for all veterans. Through our membership in the Partnership for Veterans Health Care Budget Reform, which includes the nine major Congressionally-chartered VSOs, BVA is at the forefront of a movement toward advanced funding. Our membership adopted a resolution at the convention in support of the movement.

This is an issue that should be of great concern to blinded veterans as more than 35 VA medical centers have now received approval and centralized funding for a variety of basic, intermediate, and advanced blind and low-vision programs. At the same time, approval has been granted for 11 more full-time Visual Impairment Services Team (VIST) Coordinators and 20 new full-time Blind Rehabilitation Outpatient Specialists (BROS) in the next year. Progress in getting these programs implemented could be delayed significantly as VA waits for FY 2009 funding.

The current budget battle could also negatively affect construction projects associated with the new Blind Rehabilitation Center (BRC) in Long Beach, California, and the new 25-bed center in Biloxi, Mississippi, the latter of which has been designed with components of both inpatient and “hoptel” outpatient programs.

New Rules for Co-Payments

 

On July 30, the House passed H.R. 6445. The legislation prohibits VA from requiring co-payments for hospital or nursing home care of catastrophically disabled veterans. It was sponsored by Representative Don Cazayoux (D-LA-6), a new member of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs.

The bill also requires VA to implement a comprehensive policy on the management of pain experienced by veterans, encourages HIV testing, requires the establishment of as many as seven consolidated patient accounting centers for better VA fiscal responsibility, and expands VA’s authority to provide counseling for family members of veterans receiving nonservice-connected treatment.

“There is a small population of veterans who suffer from nonservice-connected but catastrophically disabling injuries,” said House VA Committee Chairman Bob Filner, (D-CA-51). “Because of the nonservice-connected nature of their injuries, they are burdened to face co-payments, which many are ill-equipped to pay.”

If passed in the Senate, the new law could affect a number of BVA members who are nonservice-connected but who are faced with the need for inpatient care. Many such members who are nonservice-connected are unable to afford to enroll in inpatient BRCs because of existing co-payment requirements.