by Tom Zampieri
A convention visit by a Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Secretary is always highly anticipated and this year’s visit was certainly no exception. Three of the four television network affiliates in Portland, Oregon, arrived before 8 a.m. on August 19 with a cadre of both reporters and photographers to cover Secretary Eric K. Shinseki’s keynote speech to BVA convention attendees.
Also present in the audience were the 324 VA Blind Rehabilitation Service (BRS) employees attending their own annual conference simultaneously in the Doubletree Hotel.
The Secretary’s speech consisted of VA policy updates and an outline of short-term and long-term objectives for the Department. His remarks touched on homeless veterans, the new GI Bill for the 21st Century, and VA claims backlogs. He also told the audience that VA needs the full cooperation of housing, education, and employment benefits programs in order to resolve serious challenges in these areas.
During the course of the convention, I also provided updates on legislation to the BVA Board of Directors, the general membership, and our recently blinded service members who were attending the event as part of BVA’s Operation Peer Support initiative.
Testimonies on Capitol Hill
Congress began its late summer recess in early August. Up to that point, several bills mentioned in our previous Bulletin updates and strongly supported by BVA had been progressing but were still pending.
Of particular note is that President Norman Jones’ March 5 annual presentation of legislative priorities before the House and Senate VA Committees was supplemented by our input at four additional House hearings. These hearings occurred before the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigation, the Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity, and the Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs.
None of our members or leadership with whom I’ve communicated, including BVA’s old-timers, remembers us ever appearing before Congress that many times during a four-month period.
For the past year, our Bulletin updates and our Legislative Alert email messages have been filled with references to the concept of a new model for VA health care funding that has been appropriately labeled Advance Funding. H.R. 1016 passed the House on June 23 while the Senate passed S. 423 August 6, just prior to the recess.
We are now awaiting Conference Committee work to iron out differences in the aforementioned bills. We anticipate that we may well see enactment of Advance Funding for future VA appropriations sometime in September. The new law would eliminate the costly delays we have seen in 19 of the past 22 budget cycles.
2010 Appropriations, Seamless Transition
BVA is carefully monitoring the MILCON/VA FY 2010 appropriations bill, H.R. 3082. The legislation would increase the VA budget by $14.5 billion over the FY 2009 level of funding. If the bill is enacted, Congress will have substantially increased the amount of VA funding for the third consecutive year. The increases will meet the growing demand for both VA benefits services and health care services.
OIF veteran Travis Fugate, left, and Tom Zampieri, right, express gratitude to Representative Dennis Rehberg (R-MT-1) for help in securing additional funding for Vision Center of Excellence. The meeting occurred July 14.
Regular Bulletin readers and Legislative Alert loyalists are aware that we have been relentless in requesting immediate improvements in the seamless transition process for all combat eye wounded personnel returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
We are following closely the implementation of the Vision Center of Excellence (VCE), which was the subject of our March 17 hearing before the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigation and the convention Father Carroll Luncheon speech, delivered by the VCE Director himself, Colonel Donald A. Gagliano.
We were very pleased that Colonel Gagliano not only accepted our invitation to speak but took four days out of his schedule to attend the convention. He participated in the VA BRS meetings, met personally and in a group with our Operation Peer Support participants, spoke on a panel during our Friday Forum meetings, and attended other convention activities.
We will continue to press both the Department of Defense (DoD) and VA to alter the slow pace that has, from day one, impeded the establishment and progress of this important registry center intended to serve the recent combat eye wounded.
The significance of VCE hits home often and in a variety of ways, again and again. This happened most recently as I re-read an entry from Michelle Robinson’s Visual Impairment Services Newsletter of last winter out of Fresno, California. The entry was entitled “A Historical Profile of War Blindness” and the statistics provided were extracted from a VFW Magazine article published in August 2008 for which I was a source of information.
World War I—Eye Injuries 4,080 and Totally Blinded 300
World War II—Eye Injuries 134,369 and Totally Blinded 1,700
Korean War—Eye Injuries 2,892 and Totally Blinded 150
Vietnam War—Eye Injuries 13,797 and Totally Blinded Not Available
Persian Gulf—Eye Injuries 61 and Totally Blinded Not Available
Noteworthy is that the Veterans Benefits Administration has not provided data for totally blinded Vietnam and Persian Gulf veterans, or any eye injuries among Iraq and Afghanistan veterans even when we now see firsthand the link between Traumatic Brain Injury and vision loss among returning service members.
The lack of data exists because there has never been a central tracking system for eye injuries and blindness experienced during American combat operations. Through our own efforts alone, we have learned that the number of eye injuries during Persian Gulf operations was at least 108 and not the aforementioned 61. We also know that two were legally blinded in that conflict.
We are also aware of 138 blinded veterans from OIF and OEF who have now enrolled to obtain VA blind rehabilitation services. We continue to emphasize the now documented, but not always published, 13.9 percent figure. That number represents the percentage of all evacuated wounded from Iraq and Afghanistan who have sustained some type of eye injury.
BVA clearly sees VCE as the long-term solution to a centuries-old deficiency in our efforts as a nation to locate and assist our blinded veterans.
Co-Payment and Scholarship Bills
In our previous Update in the spring issue, we reported that Representative Debbie Halverson (Democrat-Illinois-District 11) had introduced legislation, H.R. 1335, eliminating co-payments required of catastrophically disabled veterans who are nonservice-connected but who must pay for inpatient rehabilitation services. A companion bill, S. 821, was introduced by Senator Bernie Sanders (Independent-Vermont) shortly thereafter.
We were pleased when the House bill merged with H.R. 3219 and passed in July. The Senate similarly merged the legislation with S. 801, which has not yet passed.
We also reported three months ago that another strong supporter of BVA issues, Senator Sherrod Brown (Democrat-Ohio), had introduced a Senate bill, S. 793, providing for scholarships for students enrolled in academic programs that would prepare them to become vision rehabilitation professionals within the VA system. Strong support was again provided by Senator Sanders. This legislation has also been merged into the aforementioned S. 801.
Because the bill would benefit blinded veterans in two separate contexts, we are, at press time, pushing hard for a Senate floor vote on S. 801.
Guide Dog Legislation
In some cases, BVA becomes concerned about legislation that was not on our radar screen to begin with. The Wounded Warrior K-9 Corps Service Dogs Act, H.R. 3266 and S. 1495, is one such example. It affects blinded veterans and veterans with other disabilities who might request dogs.
There are six Senate co-sponsors of the legislation, which would provide funding for up to 50 dogs per year for veterans. The House version would provide VA with $5 million in grants to individual guide dog schools and other service animal training programs. In return, the schools and programs would provide trained dogs for the veteran.
The issue is complex for its depth and breadth. With so many training programs out there and the fact that only 29 states have any type of training standards governing such programs, there is risk that unqualified dogs could easily be sold to disabled veterans. For this reason, we plan to monitor this legislation as it moves forward.
We are supportive of the two bills as long as specific, minimum training standards for the service dogs are required. The animals must be able to respond to commands that assist veterans in performing certain duties or functions. They must be able to carry out at least nine commands that are not considered standard commands that any dog can perform. Most training programs are at least nine months for dogs.
High training standards will help protect veterans from poorly trained dogs. They will also protect VA from fraud. They will protect the public from parties that might misrepresent what the dogs can actually do to assist veterans in their daily activities.
If a bill is passed, we hope to continue working with VA on policy issues relating to guide dogs and to maintain our positive working relationships with many of the longstanding guide dog programs throughout the country.
Measured Success: Continuum of Care
There was considerable talk at the convention about the full implementation of the Continuum of Care model for new VA blind and low-vision outpatient programs. The model provides a Continuum of Care that extends from the veteran’s home to the local VA care site to regionally-based inpatient and outpatient training programs.
VA now estimates that there are approximately 157,000 legally blind American veterans and more than one million with low vision. Those with low vision are impaired to the extent that the performance of necessary daily activities is affected. Both figures are expected to increase in the years ahead as more veterans from the Korean and Vietnam eras develop age-related vision loss.
Begun just two years ago, the full continuum now exists at 55 vision and blind rehabilitation outpatient clinics nationwide to complement the ten existing comprehensive inpatient BRCs. VA also employs 45 Blind Rehabilitation Outpatient Specialists (BROS) who serve veterans in their homes and communities and is recruiting an additional 25 to fill vacant BROS positions.
Additionally, there are 157 VA Medical Center-based Visual Impairment Services Teams (VISTs) headed by Case Management Coordinators. These increases are designed to serve both aging veterans who are losing their vision as well as returning eye-injured OIF/OEF veterans.
One visible result of this successful implementation was the increase in rehabilitation staff attending the VA BRS conference. The figure of 324, which was the most updated one that that VA provided to us in Portland, was much higher than any ever before.
VA employees attending for the first time appeared to enjoy being part of the BRS mission to provide blinded veterans with improved access to services and technology. This was at least part of the “buzz” that I heard.
These changes are due in large part to BVA’s advocacy, specifically the efforts of our membership and leadership in educating members of Congress regarding the desperate need for additional localized outpatient programs.
As 2009 moves into its final three months, we see less possibility that there will be a Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) in FY 2010 for VA disability benefits, survivor benefits, military retired pay, Social Security benefits, and other federal pensions.
At press time, the Bureau of Labor Statistics had just announced the monthly Consumer Price Index (CPI) figures for July. The CPI is the measurement used to make COLA adjustments. The CPI-W, which is an index used for government wage earners, was down 0.2 percent from its June figure and down 2.3 percent from its 2008 base.
The July value will be averaged with the monthly values throughout FY 2009 to determine the 2010 COLA. For retirees and survivors to see any COLA for 2010, inflation would have to increase by more than 2.4 percent each month. This will most assuredly not occur.
Barring unexpected legislative action, there will be no COLA for FY 2010 after the 5.8 percent increase this year. The consolation is that the 2009 increase was the highest in more than 15 years.
As a legal side note, there is no such thing as a negative COLA. If inflation is negative for the year, which seems almost certain at this point, there will simply be no COLA.
A constant source of frustration for us is that we have so few BVA members and other key contacts on our list to receive our Legislative Alerts by email. We definitely welcome a larger database. On the positive side, we realize that in many cases these Alerts are being forwarded within regional groups and other email groups. I was at least pleased by the number of our members who approached me at the convention and mentioned the Alerts. Perhaps information is being dispersed to a broader population than we had realized.
Building on the idea that knowledge is power and that grassroots regional efforts based on such knowledge can direct the course of our advocacy work in Washington, we will continue to encourage our computer users to sign up to receive the Alerts. We will also make more concerted efforts to post updated legislative information on the News page of the BVA website whenever appropriate.
We appreciate receiving responses to these communiqués. We wish to know how proposed legislation might affect blinded veterans and their families personally, what advocacy efforts they are making in their local areas, and what advice they can provide to us in Washington.
To register for the Alerts, simply send an email message to firstname.lastname@example.org. Include in the message your name, email address, postal address, and regional group affiliation.