Legislative Update 

by Tom Zampieri

Historic Legislation Follows Years of Painstaking Hurdles

With Tom Miller and other VSO Chief Executive Officers looking on, President Barack Obama signs historic legislation providing Advance Funding for VA health care. The bill became Public Law 111-81. Photo by Lawrence Jackson, courtesy of White House Photo Office.

With Tom Miller and other VSO Chief Executive Officers looking on, President Barack Obama signs historic legislation providing Advance Funding for VA health care. The bill became Public Law 111-81. Photo by Lawrence Jackson, courtesy of White House Photo Office.

In partnership with other Veterans Service Organizations (VSOs), BVA worked for more than two decades to change the way Congress passed legislation to allocate funds to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) each year. As it was, almost universally, such appropriations were approved very late.

On October 8, by a 419-1 margin, the House of Representatives passed H.R. 1016, the Veterans Health Care Budget Reform and Transparency Act of 2009. During the months prior to passage, the legislation became commonly known as the “Advance Funding” Bill.

The Senate approved its version of the bill on October 19 under unanimous consent and without a roll call vote. It became Public Law 111-81 on October 22 as Tom Miller and other organizational leaders stood behind President Obama at the White House to witness the landmark Presidential signing.

The significance of this unprecedented victory in a long fight cannot be overstated. We now look ahead toward a VA health care future that will include timely and adequate budgets at the start of each fiscal year. This pinnacle is the culmination of years of work to reform the budget process and will dramatically improve VA’s ability to manage the delivery of high-quality health care and rehabilitation services.

While millions of veterans may not immediately notice the changes that result from the legislation, the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) and every VA Medical Center will now, many months in advance, know what their budgets will be. With much more efficiency and effectiveness, VA administrators will be able to hire staff, open new programs, and provide services year round. They will no longer have to guess when their budgets might actually be available as they make important fiscal decisions.

P.L. 111-81 is responsible for an additional $44.7 billion that will be available to VHA on October 1, 2010. This figure will be sufficient as the agency plans its FY 2011 budget.

BVA appreciates the strong leadership exemplified by both House Committee on Veterans Affairs Chairman Bob Filner (D-CA-52) and Senate Chairman Daniel Akaka (D-HI) in introducing the Advance Appropriations legislation last winter. The two must also be commended for the manner in which they overcame obstacles throughout the process, not the least of which was enlisting the bi-partisan support of many members of Congress and the top leadership of both legislative bodies.

MilCon/VA 2010 Appropriations

 

The FY 2010 Military Construction and Veterans Affairs annual Appropriations Bill passed the House back on July 10. Senate passage came on November 17. The legislation adds an additional $5.4 billion, or 11.7 percent, to the VA budget above last year’s historic increases.

In just three years, we have seen a $14.5 billion increase for VA. This does not include the $1.4 billion for additional construction and maintenance of VA buildings that was part of the spring American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, or P.L. 111-5, better known still as the stimulus package.

Co-Payment and Scholarship Bills

 

Blinded veterans will also benefit in the short and long-range future from successful passage of legislation introduced earlier this year by Representative Debbie Halvorson (D-IL-11) and Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT). Regular readers of our Updates and Alerts know that we have mentioned this legislation frequently.

The bills proposed the elimination of co-payments required of catastrophically disabled veterans who are nonservice-connected and who must pay for inpatient rehabilitation services.

We mentioned in our summer issue that the House bill had merged into H.R. 3219 and was passed in July. We also mentioned that the equivalent Senate bill, S. 801, was still on the docket. Since that time, Chairman Akaka combined a benefits bill, S. 252, with S. 801, into S. 1963. Because a single Senator successfully held up S. 1963, more than six weeks of delay occurred. On November 19, the full Senate passed S. 1963 by a 98-0 margin.

As an additional bonus for blinded veterans, another key BVA issue was included in S. 1963. The issue related to tuition assistance for college students enrolled in academic programs that would prepare them to become vision rehabilitation professionals within the VA system. If students accept the funding, they make a commitment to work for VA Blind Rehabilitation Service (BRS) for three years. It is anticipated that the scholarship program will be especially effective in attracting new graduates to work as Blind Rehabilitation Outpatient Specialists (BROS).

Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) first worked on this legislation in the 110th Congress during 2007-08. He has continued his efforts in this the 111th Congress. The House version of the scholarship bill, H.R. 228, was merged into H.R. 3949 and passed in October.

Tracking bills such as the ones mentioned above, as they move up through Committees toward floor votes, is much like watching someone make sausage. In this case, I’m referring specifically to the manner in which general VA benefits and health care legislation has been combined with important bills that are specific to our organization’s membership and needs. Although “sausage production” is common in the legislative process, it has been even more prevalent in recent legislation.

If not for the strong support of certain members of Congress pushing for passage of our veterans bills, we would not enjoy this success. We especially thank again Senator Brown, Senator Sanders, and Representative Halvorson for their strong leadership and perseverance during the past few months. Many blinded veterans will be able to get the special rehabilitation services they need because of their efforts.

Veterans Pension Protection Act

 

BVA supports the Veterans Pension Protection Act of 2009 (H.R. 3485) and appreciates the efforts of Representative Brian Higgins (D-NY-27) to introduce the bill. Blinded veterans receiving nonservice-connected pensions generally have very limited incomes and are clearly being penalized by the current VA pension rules requiring that all income be included for pension purposes.

When states or municipalities honor their blinded veterans by providing a small yearly “bonus or annuity,” it should be viewed as it is intended—as a “gift” for their service to the nation. Under the current policy, however, these small gifts are counted as income for tax purposes.

In the 110th Congress, with the support of Ways and Means Chairman Charles Rangel (D-NY-15), H.R. 3997, Section 202 stated: “State annuities for certain veterans are to be disregarded in determining Supplemental Security Income to prevent these annuities from being classified as income for tax purposes.”

BVA asked Representative Higgins to introduce VA Committee legislation to fix this issue after years of frustration. The legislatures of Massachusetts, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York currently provide a yearly small annuity for blinded veterans diagnosed with permanent blindness. The first three aforementioned states provide such annuities only to service-connected blinded veterans while New York provides them to veterans both service-connected and nonservice-connected.

Veterans on VA pensions are affected by how the states regard this annuity. For well over a decade, various attempts to legislatively change this classification have failed. Much to our surprise, VA testified in favor of the bill on October 8 during a hearing in which we also presented prepared testimony. The Chairman of the Subcommittee on Disability Benefits and Memorial Affairs under which this legislation falls is Representative John Hall (D-NY-19), who also co-sponsored the bill.

We had hoped this bill would move quickly. Unfortunately, the Congressional Budget Office cost estimate requires the Committee to find an offset to pay for it before a full Committee vote can occur. In the meantime, blinded veterans in New York may want to ask their members of Congress if they are aware of H.R. 3485.

More Hill Testimony

 

We continue to receive a surprising number of requests to present oral and written testimony before the House VA Committee and many of its Subcommittees.

Following our October 8 testimony, we were asked to address our positions on a series of bills, one of which was the previously mentioned Veterans Pension Protection Act. On November 19, we submitted a statement and commented “on the record” regarding Special Adaptive Housing Grant programs. In addition to our oral testimony, our written statement was quoted extensively by Chairman Filner’s Committee staff in a follow-up press release.

We were originally scheduled to testify a second time on the same day, November 19, this time before the Subcommittee on Health. The subject of the hearing was to be Contracted Care. Unfortunately, on short notice, the hearing was postponed until a later date.

Even with the temporary cancellation, BVA has now presented testimony six times this year and submitted for the record twice. These opportunities serve to raise our stature before Congress and increase our credibility among fellow VSOs. Through this greater visibility, we hope to appear capable of providing well-researched information on a wide range of legislation regarding quality of life, disability, “seamless transition,” and general health care issues.

These testimony opportunities and their subsequent rewards are well worth the increased workload involved in preparing for them.

Seamless Transition and Vision Center of Excellence

 

BVA continues to seek improvements in the seamless transition process for all combat eye-wounded returning from operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. One of the most effective means for implementing these improvements will be the ongoing progress of the Vision Center of Excellence (VCE).

After prolonged delays, VCE Director Colonel Donald Gagliano has now been provided with six offices near the Pentagon. He has three administrative staff members helping to develop the operational aspects of the Center. During meetings in which we recently participated at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, we learned of construction plans for VCE headquarters within that facility. The current floor plan is for 3,482 square feet of administrative space next to a new 18,000 square-foot optometry clinic and across from a new eye surgery center.

Even with the progress, we feel compelled to continue pressing both Department of Defense (DoD) and VA leadership to move forward. The projected completion date for all three phases of the construction renovation projects is 18 months in the future. BVA is pushing to have the first section completed by next summer. Our next Update in early 2010 should reveal more about the spring and summer construction plans and timetables.

Service Animal Legislation

 

Two bills recently introduced in the House and Senate, H.R. 3266 and S. 1495, respectively, would establish a VA grant program for disabled veterans who request service dogs. The program would provide funding for veterans to attend both guide dog schools and other types of service animal training.

The bills became part of the National Defense Authorization Act of FY 2010.

A complex issue associated with this proposed legislation is the concern that dogs may not be well qualified since, at present, only 29 states have any type of training standards governing such programs.

BVA is also concerned about ongoing scams that dupe the public into believing that veterans must pay up to $25,000 (some schools are actually making these and other claims in their advertisements) to obtain a dog. The reality is that blinded veterans have received guide dogs for decades without having to pay anything.

Continuum of Care Updates and Progress

 

As mentioned in our previous Update, we continue to monitor and work with BRS Director Gale Watson on the VA Continuum of Care initiative for 54 new outpatient blind and low-vision programs.

The initiative was released two years ago and is moving quickly forward. VA Optometry reports a 200 percent increase in veterans cared for in the new low-vision clinics. The number of full-time Visual Impairment Service Team (VIST) Coordinators is now 114 with 43 part-time Coordinators.

The number of full time BROS is now up to 68 full-time positions compared to just 25 in 2005 when the big push to improve outpatient services for our blinded veterans first began. We expect that access to services and the quality of services themselves will improve even further with passage of the legislation eliminating the $1,300 co-payments for admission into Blind Rehabilitation Centers (BRCs) and the establishment of the new outpatient low-vision programs.

Last Word on COLA 2010

 

Despite the many inquiries we’ve received and the rumors floating that some type of Cost of Living Adjustment, or COLA, might still happen for recipients of Social Security benefits, VA disability benefits, survivor benefits, military retired pay, and other federal pensions, the case is closed. We know there will be no 2010 COLA.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics recently announced that the monthly Consumer Price Index, the measurement used to make adjustments, was negative for inflation in FY 2009. Barring some kind of other legislative action that would result in huge budgetary battles within Congress, such as another one-time $250 check to elderly veterans and Social Security recipients, we will probably not be mentioning COLA again until next summer.

Veterans Funding Summary: Actions Taken by the 111th Congress

 

H.R. 3082—FY 2010 Military Construction/VA Appropriations

  • The House approved a funding bill that provides a path to restoring and revitalizing the services provided to veterans by adding $14.5 billion to the FY 2009 total (July 10, 2009).
  • Provides appropriations for FY 2010 and advance appropriations for 2011.
  • The largest veterans funding increase ever requested by the Executive Branch.
  • Third consecutive budget to exceed the request of the Independent Budget.
  • Enactment of H.R. 3082 amounts to a 58 percent increase in the VA budget during a period of two and a half years.

Veterans Health Care Budget Reform and Transparency Act of 2009 (P.L. 111-81)

  • A top priority for Veterans Service Organizations.
  • Allows Congress to fund VA medical accounts one year ahead of schedule (October 22, 2009).
  • Responds to chronically late VA budgets since, during the past 22 years, 19 VA budgets were late.
  • Offers a historic new approach to providing adequate and timely funding for veterans health care.

Supplemental Appropriations Act of 2009 (P.L. 111-32)

  • Expands the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill to cover the full cost of college for surviving military children by creating the “Marine Gunnery Sergeant John David Fry” scholarship. Provides education benefits to children of deceased active duty service members.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (P.L. 111-5)

  • First major step in rebuilding the nation’s economy while also honoring veterans.
  • Provided a $1.4 billion increase for VA for maintaining VA facilities, construction of veterans’ extended care facilities, and veteran cemetery repairs.
  • Provided an economic stimulus payment of $250 to disabled veterans receiving VA compensation or pension.

Priority Legislation Passed by the House

  • H.R. 1211, Women Veterans Health Care Improvement Act, expands and improves VA services for the 1.8 million women veterans.
  • H.R. 3155, Caregiver Assistance and Resource Enhancement Act, provides immediate support for America’s wounded warriors by conducting outreach, providing training, and offering counseling to their caregivers.
  • H.R. 1171, Homeless Veterans Reintegration Program Reauthorization Act, strengthens national efforts to prevent America’s heroes from ever becoming homeless.
  • H.R. 3219, Veterans’ Insurance and Health Care Improvement Acts of 2009, gives veterans greater flexibility in their insurance choices and ensures that they are able to plan appropriately for their financial security.
  • H.R. 3949, Veterans’ Small Business Assistance and Service Members Protection Act of 2009, addresses reintegration challenges for veterans and provides enhanced protections for veteran-owned small business, deployed service members, and family members of veterans.