by Tom Zampieri
We were pleased with the legislative results that came just prior to the holiday season although it wasn’t until the third week of the New Year that everything was finalized and fell into place.
BVA had been working on a number of major pieces of legislation and had hoped for successful closure on three different bills as 2007 began to wind down. The legislation we have referred to in many of our updates and alerts as the Paired Organ Bill, or H.R. 797, was signed into law on December 26. The official name of the law is the Dr. James Allen Blinded Veterans Equity Act of 2007.
On January 17, President George W. Bush released $3.7 billion in additional VA health care funding, part of which is the $12.5 million in directed funding for implementation of the new full continuum of blind and low-vision outpatient programs.
On January 23, Congress revised and passed the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which included the Military Eye Trauma Center of Excellence legislation that BVA had been instrumental in pushing through the Armed Services Committees last fall.
Paired Organ History
Passage of H.R. 797 after a four-year effort was particularly gratifying. Donald May of Lodi, Wisconsin, lost one eye due to a hand grenade attack four days after the D-Day invasion in France in June 1944. Some 50 years later, he was denied a change in his service connection for blindness in both eyes when he could not meet the Veterans Benefits Administration’s (VBA’s) 5/200 standard for legal blindness.
Dr. James Allen, a retired VA ophthalmologist residing in Wisconsin, spoke with May in 2004 shortly after the aforementioned denial.
“We need to change the law,” he told May.
Dr. Allen then promised to do everything he could to make the VBA standard consistent with that used by both the World Health Organization and by the Social Security Administration for individuals applying for disability. Among the many other things Dr. Allen did, he immediately contacted both BVA and Representative Tammy Baldwin (D-WI-2).
H.R. 797 proceeded successfully through the House Committee on Veterans Affairs one week following BVA’s annual Congressional testimony in March 2007. Only days later once again, the full House of Representatives approved a standalone bill by a vote of 414-0. Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs Chairman Daniel Akaka (D-HI) introduced S. 1163 in late April. The bill passed in Committee on June 28 and in the full Senate on November 3 under suspension rule.
Because of changes made to the bill by the Senate, the House had to once again vote on the legislation, passing it for the second time during the first week of December. It was returned to the Senate for a suspension vote on December 17, the day before the body was to recess for the holiday season.
BVA cannot adequately recognize and express appreciation for the effort Dr. Allen made on behalf of the legislation. He made hundreds of long distance phone calls from his home to Congressional offices at his own expense. He also sent an equal number of letters and emails while working closely with Representative Baldwin. At age 79, Dr. Allen fought the Washington bureaucracy and proved it can be done successfully!
Thanks and kudos must also go to Representative Baldwin. Her willingness to learn more about the need for this legislation and then sponsor it, followed by considerable tenacity and persistence, finally won out.
Landmark NDAA Legislation for Blinded Veterans
BVA greatly appreciated the bipartisan efforts of Senators John Kerry (D-MA), Chuck Hagel (R-NE), Pete Domenici (R-NM), and Barack Obama (D-IL) in their introduction of Senate Amendment 2969 to create a Military Eye Trauma Center of Excellence and Eye Trauma Registry.
In a spirit of bipartisanship, Representatives John Boozman (R-AR-3), John Hall (D-NY-19), Heather Wilson (R-NM-1), and Shelley Berkley (D-NV-1) introduced H.R. 3558, which became the House version of the aforementioned Senate amendment.
H.R. 3558 and Senate Amendment 2969 eventually ended up in the NDAA, which was sent to President Bush just prior to the December recess and vetoed by him on December 28 over a totally unrelated portion of the bill. The House quickly revised the bill, reconciling on January 14 the section that had caused the veto in the first place. The Senate voted 91-3 to approve NDAA once again and the bill was shortly thereafter signed by the President.
The Eye Trauma Center will be an historic first. Serious eye injuries will be reported by all branches of the military. The reports will be sent to the Registry, to the Secretary of Veterans Affairs (VA), and to VA Blind Rehabilitation Service (BRS).
We will be closely following the enforcement and implementation of this legislation. Although plans are still sketchy, we understand that there is a proposal to locate it at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, alongside both a new Traumatic Brain Injury Center of Excellence and a Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Center of Excellence.
Another proposal has the three centers locating at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas.
MILCON/VA 2008 and 2009
BVA, in concert with other major Veterans Service Organizations (VSOs), is working diligently to ensure that the MILCON/VA FY 2009 appropriations will continue with the necessary increases to sustain the growing numbers of veterans enrolling in the system. We also hope that the money can be disbursed on time, for a change.
The FY 2008 MILCON/VA appropriations funding bill was not sent to President Bush until the middle of last December. Although the legislation ultimately contained the largest increase in discretionary funding for VA health care in 77 years, it became caught up in the battle between Congress and the White House in the midst of all of the other major appropriations bills for FY 2008. Part of the funding had to be designated for emergency approval only.
The FY 2008 delay again forced VA to operate on a Continuing Resolution from October 1 through mid-December. A full month passed before all of the funds were finally signed into law. A “down payment” for the VA full continuum of care for 54 new blind and low-vision services between 2008 and 2011 was included in the FY 2008 appropriations, again making the most recent budgetary process frustrating as VA’s selection of sites for these services has been delayed.
Notwithstanding the obstacles, we are nonetheless appreciative of the additional $6.7 billion appropriated to VA for FY 2008 over that of FY 2007. There were a number of champions in this effort that we must thank, among them House MILCON/VA Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Chet Edwards (D-TX-17). A number of noteworthy achievements are reflected in the 2008 MILCON/VA that were long overdo.
We hope that the second session of the 110th Congress will pass the MILCON/VA appropriations for FY 2009 on a timely basis, preferably before the fiscal year begins on October 1. We are requesting specifically that Congress include $14.5 million for FY 2009 for the full continuum of care for blinded veterans and have inserted this figure into the traditional VSO Independent Budget.
As reported in our previous Legislative Updates and Alerts, 54 VA facilities will, in the next three years, receive approval and centralized funding for a variety of intermediate and advanced services. This includes additional full-time Visual Impairment Service Team (VIST) Coordinators and 35 new full-time Blind Rehabilitation Outpatient Specialists (BROS).
VHA already has plans for several intermediate and advanced outpatient program sites in 2008. It is our understanding that there will be 11 new VIST Coordinator and 20 new BROS positions created this year alone. At press time, we were again unable to obtain a full list of the specific locations of these positions, but we have been told that Denver, Houston, and Richmond will be provided with advanced low-vision optometry programs. We also believe that Baltimore and Boston will receive intermediate programs.
Veterans’ Disability Benefits Commission
Two House hearings and one or more Senate hearings were scheduled for the month of February for testimony by the Veterans’ Disability Benefits Commission (VDBC). The testimony and recommendations by the Commission came after two years of extensive research into the current Veterans Benefits Administration.
The final written report consisted of 560 pages of proposed changes, most of which require improved efficiency and reduced waiting times in the processing and resolution of claims. Before the end of the 110th session, we expect Congress to introduce several new pieces of legislation based on the Commission’s conclusions. We will monitor these bills and report them regularly to the BVA membership.
Jackson Lee’s VISTA Bill
H.R. 1240, or BVA’s VISTA bill, was introduced by Representative Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX-18) early last year. The legislation would authorize the inclusion of VA Instructors for the Blind and Orientation and Mobility Instructors in the VA scholarship program in exchange for a commitment to work in the VA system following graduation. The VISTA Bill passed in the House VA Committee on June 28 and was approved in the full chamber a few weeks later as part of a larger bill, H.R. 1315.
Unfortunately, a Senate bill equivalent to H.R. 1315 stalled and was never voted on in the VA Senate Committee due to a problem in an unrelated section of the bill. Successful passage in the Senate would have provided a critical recruitment tool for VA BRS in attracting qualified professionals from accredited programs to work with blinded veterans.
Senators Hagel and Obama have attempted to get the bill moved through the Committee but their efforts have not yet been successful.
Blind Veterans Equity Act Update
We have previously explained in considerable detail the Blind Veterans Equity Act, or H.R. 697, introduced by Representative Thomas Reynolds (R-NY-26). The proposed law would make a state annuity paid to blinded veterans in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, or in any other state that may enact such an annuity in the future, unaffected by Social Security Income received.
Because the legislation ended up being categorized as a tax issue, the bill was sent to the House Ways and Means Committee. We reported in the Autumn issue of the Bulletin that the legislation had been added to a larger Ways and Means Bill and that the bill had been approved in the full Committee of the House.
Happily, the Senate version of the Ways and Means Bill passed in late December but with provisions of a tax package that the House version did not contain. A vote will therefore come up again soon on the House side that will hopefully pass this legislation.
We must stress again, however, that successful passage of this bill in both the House and Senate will still not solve an age-old problem with annuities that are considered income for VA pension purposes. This is a complicated situation at best. Since the House VA Committee has legal jurisdiction over pension issues, a separate bill must be drafted and introduced there once again in the future. Any changes to VA pension laws will probably not come easily due to “Pay/Go” requirements that now govern Congress. Such changes must be accompanied by offsets that will adequately pay for them.
Braille Flag at Arlington
We mentioned in the Bulletin’s previous issue that Representative Todd Tiahrt (R-KS-4) had introduced H.R. 4169, legislation that would place a tactile Braille American flag at Arlington National Cemetery, where 4 million people visit annually.
Much to our surprise, the Department of the Army contacted Tiahrt’s office in December, informing the Congressman that legislation was not necessary and that the Army fully supported the placement of the Braille flag at the Cemetery. A promise was made to work with Tiahrt and the Kansas Braille Transcription Institute on design specifications. The target date for the new flag at Arlington was set for Memorial Day of this year.
Equally amazing was the next turn of events, which consisted of a reassessment by the Army that legislation really was necessary. In conjunction with other legislation and resolutions commemorating “National Salute to Hospitalized Veterans Week,” the House unanimously passed H.R. 4169 on February 14.
“We owe a huge debt of gratitude to our veterans, and this simple action will mean much to our patriotic blind veterans,” said Tiahrt in a short speech on the House floor following the vote.
Tiahrt also thanked four key individuals for their help in making the legislation possible. We will provide more information about these individuals and their respective roles in a future Bulletin issue once the legislation has been dealt with in the Senate. We will also provide more information about the proposed appearance and location of the flag at Arlington.
At press time, Jim Richardson, an aide to Tiahrt, had already spoken with Senate staff about introducing a bill. He told me that still another option would be to not have a Senate companion bill at all but to ask Chairman Akaka to sign off on the House-passed bill and send it to the Senate floor under Unanimous Consent.
Travel Reimbursement Gets Needed Increase
More than a million eligible veterans saw their mileage reimbursement rate more than double as of February 1. 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.
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.
Veterans in the House and Senate
Most of our readers are probably aware that for much of U.S. history, and certainly after World War II, military service has been considered a crucial asset for aspiring politicians. What many may not realize is that the current Congress, which must deal frequently with military and national security issues, has the lowest number of military veterans since the pre-World War II era.
The number could be even lower in the next Congress as 10 veterans plan to retire or run for other offices while others face tough re-election contests. What alarms many of us most is the drop in Senate Members with military experience and the small probability that retiring Members will be replaced by veterans.
Bill Clinton’s election in 1992 ended a string of nine presidents who wore the uniform in time of war, six of whom had served in Congress. Until the late 1970s, Congress was filled with veterans of World War II and Korea.
The impetus for military service dropped sharply with the end of the draft in 1973. Consequently, we now have fewer new veterans to replace the dwindling ranks of lawmakers from “The Greatest Generation,” and the percentage of Members with military experience has dropped from the high 70s to 24 percent today. We now have 29 Senators and 100 House members who claim military service, including time in the Reserves or National Guard. This number is down from 141 veterans in the previous Congress.
Only eight World War II vets remain: Senators Daniel Akaka and Daniel Inouye, both Democrats from Hawaii; Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ); Senator Ted Stevens (R-AK); Senator John Warner (R-VA); Representative John Dingell (D-MI-15); Representative Ralph Hall (R-TX-4); and Representative Ralph Regula (R-OH-16). Warner and Regula will retire in 2009.
The decrease in veterans in Congress is reflected in the Committees that deal most directly with defense or veterans issues. The Senate Armed Services Committee’s 25 Members include 11 veterans while the House Armed Services Committee has only 16 veterans out of a possible 62. Neither Chairman is a veteran but the Ranking Members of both panels are Vietnam combat veterans.
The Senate Veterans Affairs Committee has six veterans, including the Chairman, out of 15 Members. The House Committee has seven veterans out of 29. The House Chairman never served but Ranking Member Steve Buyer (R-IN-4) is active in the military reserves.
While we might expect Members of Congress to understand our issues and support veterans, we must also realize that these Members must also contend with thousands of other requests and demands from groups, organizations, associations, and trade or business alliances.
Among these competing interests, it has become increasingly challenging to help Congress realize what veterans have done for the country and to communicate the urgency of veterans’ issues.