Legislative Update

by Tom Zampieri

Committee Makes Historic Visits

 

VA Secretary Shinseki, third from left, greeted Tom Zampieri, George Stocking, and fellow Hawaiian Roy Kekahuna during March 2 visit.
VA Secretary Shinseki, third from left, greeted Tom Zampieri, George Stocking, and fellow Hawaiian Roy Kekahuna during March 2 visit.

The BVA Legislative Committee, consisting of National President Norman Jones, Vice President Roy Kekahuna, and Director of District 5 George Stocking, converged on the Nation’s Capital just two days after the area’s heaviest snowstorm of the winter season. On March 1, as we made our way to the first scheduled visit of the week at the office of recently confirmed Secretary of Veterans Affairs (VA) Eric K. Shinseki, a second storm was well underway.

Secretary Shinseki listened to our historical overview of BVA. We then explained our current programs and issues, which seemed to interest him a great deal. The Secretary asserted, as he has in recent testimony, that as a combat-wounded Vietnam veteran, he would be sensitive to the needs of veterans of the early 21st century, providing strong leadership that would result in better quality health care and benefits as well as improved timeliness in the claims delivery process.

After visiting with the Secretary, the Committee had a full slate of appointments with key Members of the House and Senate Committees on Veterans Affairs that occupied most of the next two days.


Flurry of Hill Appearances

 

As always, the highlight of the week with our visiting BVA Board of Directors was the annual presentation of our legislative priorities before a joint hearing of both the House and Senate VA Committees on March 5. For the second consecutive year, the oral testimony occurred on the Senate side of Capitol Hill in a panel format that also included the American Ex-Prisoners of War, Gold Star Wives, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, Jewish War Veterans, Paralyzed Veterans of America, and the Wounded Warrior Project. Norman did an outstanding job of synthesizing in five minutes the 12-page document we had previously submitted for the Congressional Record.

As was the case with the other organizations, Norman emphasized our concern that Congress provide a new model for VA health care funding by passing the House and Senate bills providing for Advance Funding. He also requested immediate improvements in the “Seamless Transition” process for the combat eye-wounded service members returning from Iraq and Afghanistan and the implementation of the long-awaited Vision Center of Excellence (VCE).

An unusual opportunity presented itself the day prior to our annual testimony. With only a few days notice, the Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity asked us to prepare written testimony and appear for an oral statement on specific legislation. In this case, the bill provided for scholarships for students enrolled in academic programs that would prepare them to become vision rehabilitation professionals within the VA system.

In the mix of everything else going on that week, we urged the passage of H.R. 228 in our testimony so that the most promising of prospective rehab professionals might be attracted to VA service and the opportunity to work with blinded veterans.

As a side note, we learned in mid-April that Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) was poised to introduce a companion bill in the Senate. The legislation, identified as The Vision Scholars Act of 2009, S. 793, became the focus of considerable attention during a VA Senate Committee hearing on April 22. Both BVA and Senator Brown’s office issued press releases about the legislation’s introduction.

Not even a week had gone by after our annual testimony and midwinter Board meeting that we were once again contacted and asked to appear before the House VA Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigation on March 17. The purpose of this hearing was to gather information on the lack of progress on the Congressionally mandated VCE. As we have described in past Updates, the legislation creating VCE was part of the National Defense Authorization Act of 2008.

BVA arranged for three of our combat-blinded Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) retired Army veterans and one spouse to provide testimony on the significant problems they had encountered in obtaining the care, services, and benefits they had earned relative to their legal blindness.

Specialist Travis Fugate, Sergeant David Kinney III, and Master Sergeant Gilbert Magallanes, Jr. and his wife Sherry shared the frustrations they had experienced in the transition from military medical facilities to the VA system. All of them spoke specifically about the limited assistance they received in obtaining services for their eye injuries, relating that Department of Defense (DoD) Case Managers did not provide them with the connection to VA Blind Rehabilitation Service (BRS) in a timely manner.

A Pentagon witness was, at various times throughout the hearing, questioned pointedly as to why the process of establishing VCE had been so slow. He was told that the rationale behind the legislation creating VCE was to avert the very problems experienced by the three men present and their families, and that the 13-month delay in getting things off the ground was inexcusable.

Although he is not a regular member of the Subcommittee, Ranking Member of the full House Committee Steve Buyer (R-IN-4) attended the hearing and participated. We were most grateful for his support. At one point, Buyer told the Pentagon witness that VCE must become a top priority immediately and that staffing, funding, and program operations were to take on major progress so that a report back to the full Committee could be provided within 30 days.

Shortly thereafter, newly appointed VCE Director Donald Gagliano (see Autumn 2008 Bulletin for biographical information) received notification that the first installment of $3 million had been approved as a result of BVA input at the hearing. In a matter of days, we went from a 13-month delay to a result that included initial funding, approval to hire various support staff, and a commitment to an electronic registry that would track combat eye injuries.

In addition to the hearing, we received additional help from the Subcommittee in the form of a letter to DoD Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary Shinseki. The letter requested their direct supervision and involvement, if necessary, in getting VCE off the ground. It was signed by Representatives Michael Michaud (D-ME-2), Harry Mitchell (D-AZ-5), Zack Space (D-OH-18), Glenn Nye (D-VA-2), John Boozman (R-AR-3), Harry Teague (D-NM-2), and Tim Walz (D-MN-4).

We are now working to ensure that the current War Supplemental legislation includes funding for renovation of space at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, where the headquarters for VCE will be located on the existing first floor. We are visiting Congressional offices frequently to explain the importance of getting such construction funding inserted. On May 12, Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) demonstrated her support by introducing an amendment that added $4.1 million for VCE.

Our hope that VCE will become fully established within the next few months is now becoming more realistic. What this will mean is an effective mechanism for tracking the eye wounded and their specific injuries, the ability to create clinical policy guidelines and protocol for the severely eye injured, and the coordination of a variety of significant and exciting vision research projects.

BVA participated in still one more Hill hearing on April 28, once again scheduled by the House VA Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigation. The hearing was entitled “Leaving No One Behind: Is the Federal Recovery Coordination Program Working?” Its purpose was to examine the effectiveness of the recovery program in bringing coordinated care to injured veterans by ensuring that they have a single point of contact to navigate the DoD and VA bureaucracies. Appearing on a panel with two injured veterans and two family members of injured veterans, we testified that many of our returning wounded service members and their families continue to be gripped by frustration as they seek coordinated care but are unable to obtain it without serious hardship.

FY 2010 Budget

 

The Veterans Service Organization (VSO) Independent Budget for FY 2010 called for a minimum increase of $4.3 billion over this year’s VA health care funding. BVA supports this projected need. Although we must wait still longer to receive details regarding the Obama Administration’s proposed budget, we do know that it calls for an increase larger than the Independent Budget recommendation.

The item for which we will be searching most carefully in the new budget is implementation of a three-year plan for a Continuum of Care for new outpatient blind and low-vision programs. The plan was proposed and initiated two years ago. We appreciate the progress that has occurred during the past two years. During that time, funding for these new programs has been close to $30 million. Specifically, the funding has been directed to the 54 new low-vision and advanced blind outpatient programs that provide veterans with local services which address vision problems in their earliest stages. We are pleased that our efforts have been recognized and that the funding provided during the past two budget cycles has kept program development on schedule.

Critical Spring Legislation

 

The 111th Congress returned from a two-week Easter recess with a full task list from which to prioritize its business. The items on the legislative agenda included dozens of potential bills from VA Committee business on both the House and Senate sides of Capitol Hill.

One such item included legislation, H.R. 1335, introduced by Representative Debbie Halverson (D-IL-11) to eliminate co-payments required of catastrophically disabled veterans who are nonservice-connected but who must pay for inpatient rehabilitation services. The bill now has 26 co-sponsors, including Chairman Bob Filner (D-CA-52). We were pleased to learn that Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT) introduced Senate companion legislation, S. 821, on April 2.

S. 821 and the aforementioned S. 793 providing for VA scholarships were two of 18 health care bills discussed at a Senate VA Committee hearing on April 22. Senators Brown and Sanders invoked Committee members during the hearing to fully support and vote in favor of the two BVA bills when they come up for a vote in Committee on May 21.

We are pleased by the attention our legislation is receiving when there is so much else going on in the world of budget and appropriations hearings. Based on our meetings with legislative staff, we expect these two key bills to be passed before the Memorial Day recess.

White House Invitations

 

Tom Zampieri, fourth from right, joined other VSO representatives and Secretary Shinseki, second from right, for March 16 Oval Office photo opportunity with President Barack Obama.
Tom Zampieri, fourth from right, joined other VSO representatives and Secretary Shinseki, second from right, for March 16 Oval Office photo opportunity with President Barack Obama.

President Obama invited representatives from ten of the major VSOs, including BVA, to meet with him and Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel in the Roosevelt Room in the West Wing of the White House on March 16. Secretary Shinseki was also present.

The meeting was called to discuss a proposed plan from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) in which veterans’ private insurance companies would be billed for service-connected medical care. The objective would be millions in savings to the federal government.

VSOs unified in strong opposition to this plan and openly expressed their dismay during the meeting. Within 48 hours, the White House announced that the plan would not be submitted to Congress for consideration.

Once the dust had settled, the White House evidently realized that OMB had made a serious policy error in even making such a proposal without consulting the veterans groups. In the midst of the controversy, Chairman Filner proclaimed the initiative “dead on arrival” while other VA Committee Members chimed in similarly. When all was said and done, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA-8) was one of the first to announce that the suggestion was off the table.

On March 23, we were again called to the White House, this time for a meeting of essentially the same group with President Obama, Secretary Gates, and Secretary Shinseki. The discussion centered around the acceleration of efforts to provide a bidirectional exchange of service member health care records between DoD and VA, including the DD-214 service record. Accompanying the rhetoric was a pledge of $5.2 billion in additional funding for FY 2010 VA health care appropriations, the single largest increase ever.

President Obama also announced in the same meeting that the White House would fully support the Advance Funding legislation currently before Congress, initiated by the Partnership for Health Care Budget Reform of which BVA is a member.

The Partnership considers the legislation a top priority. Norman Jones also made it a point of emphasis in BVA’s oral and written testimony only three weeks before. The Veterans Health Care Budget Reform and Transparency Act of 2009, introduced by the respective House and Senate VA Chairmen, had 69 co-sponsors in the House and 34 in the Senate.

The President’s support is a major step in the right direction. While we were fortunate enough this year (FY 2009) to have VA appropriations passed and signed during the first week of October, this achievement was an exception rather than the rule. The appropriations process has sometimes dragged on for months and has been completed on time only three times in the past 22 years. Providing adequate, timely, and predictable funding for VA health care is critical to the future care of our nation’s veterans.

On April 29, we learned that the 2010 Senate Budget Resolution passed that same day contained an Advance Funding provision. While the Budget Resolution is non-binding, it plays a major role in guiding appropriations. The inclusion of Advance Funding for veterans marks yet another step forward for this landmark legislation.

For additional information on the progress of Advance Funding and related hearings, many of which should occur before the Memorial Day recess, please visit the website of the Partnership at www.fundingforvets.org.


Other Collaborative Efforts

 

BVA continues to work with other organizations on advocacy issues of mutual concern such as those dealing with Section 508 Disability Access Compliance and the public safety concerns associated with quiet electric cars.

Representative Cliff Stearns (R-FL-6) introduced the Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act of 2009, H.R. 734, to direct automakers to include warnings to pedestrians that drivers can initiate from within electric cars. Stearns’ determination to introduce the legislation came when he himself was almost hit by an electric car in his home state. He indicated that if a sighted person is in danger as a result of noiseless cars, a blind pedestrian is at risk all the more.

BVA has also enjoyed a fruitful and pleasant working relationship with Jim Jorkasky, Executive Director of the National Alliance for Eye Vision Research (NAEVR). Most recently, we have collaborated with him on a potential increase in funding for the Congressionally Directed Medical Research Program from the current level of $4 million this year to $10 million for FY 2010. The additional funding would be dedicated to medical research on combat eye trauma.

We have also worked with Jim on securing increased funding support for National Institutes of Health vision research that would benefit blinded veterans and all American citizens who could, in the future, develop degenerative eye diseases.

Jim graciously mentions BVA in NAEVR newsletters and credits us with bringing greater awareness to Members of Congress on the importance of Traumatic Brain Injury vision dysfunction research and funding. The feeling is certainly mutual. We frequently attend Congressional briefings with Jim and other NAEVR officials, having seen powerful efforts on their part to improve the chances for new treatments and cures for the various degenerative eye diseases and eye injuries.

Veterans’ Corps Signed into Law

 

On April 21, President Obama signed the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, which included a provision from Representatives Phil Hare (D-IL-17) and John Sarbanes (D-MD-3) to create a Veterans’ Corps.

The Veterans Engaged for Tomorrow Corps provision establishes a service corps, similar to AmeriCorps or Senior Corps, for veterans by veterans. The primary mission will be to recruit and mobilize veterans to provide education, job training, and mentoring for fellow veterans.

“With thousands of troops set to return home over the next several years and millions of veterans already needing some form of assistance, Vet Corps will provide a vehicle for our heroes to continue their service while addressing a critical national priority,” said Hare.

The Veterans’ Corp will collaborate with VSOs, VA, and other organizations. It will be overseen by the Corporation of National and Community Service.

Additional Thanks and a Note about BVA’s 64th

 

Many Bulletin readers as well as recipients of our regular Legislative Alerts are making a difference by keeping informed of our activities and speaking out on issues that are important to them. Knowledge is indeed power, and even more so when acted upon.

We appreciate these efforts and can attest to their importance even when they cannot be easily quantified and measured. We know that member awareness of the organization’s work and the ensuing grassroots efforts can often change the results drastically. Although our Legislative Alerts list is not as long as we would like it to be, we are aware that many members are in other email groups that receive the Alerts as a result of email forwarding.

We are very excited about the possibility of Secretary Shinseki, a Vietnam combat-wounded veteran and Purple Heart recipient, being able to attend and address our national convention. We look forward once again to the participation of several OIF-OEF service members as part of our Operation Peer Support initiative begun nearly three years ago. Please make every effort feasible to attend this year’s gathering. It is definitely not too late to make arrangements for an August visit to Portland!