Legislative Update 

by Tom Zampieri

New Administration and New Congress

 

We pause to catch our breath in the midst of a frenetic inauguration season and the beginning of the 111th Congress. There has most assuredly been an even faster pace than usual to events transpiring in the Nation’s Capital recently.

Highlights for BVA include a visit to our national headquarters by the White House Transition Team at the end of December. At the time, we wondered if the visit had been little more than a nice social call until we received word on February 5 that the published President’s Agenda for Veterans listed “care for polytrauma vision impairment” as a priority for the new Obama Administration. This agenda is available for viewing on the White House website.

Tom Zampieri catches up with Rebecca Hyder, Manager of Public Health and Manpower for the American Academy of Ophthalmology, at House VA Committee Roundtable January 27. BVA has recently collaborated with AAO on several legislative issues
Tom Zampieri catches up with Rebecca Hyder, Manager of Public Health and Manpower for the American Academy of Ophthalmology, at House VA Committee Roundtable January 27. BVA has recently collaborated with AAO on several legislative issues

Highlights of a more general nature for all of the Veterans Service Organizations (VSOs) include the appointment of new members of the House and Senate Committees on Veterans Affairs and their respective Subcommittees.

The House Committee continues to be chaired by Representative Bob Filner (D-CA-52) with Steve Buyer (R-IN-4) as Ranking Member. The Senate Committee will retain Daniel Akaka (D-HI) as Chairman and Richard Burr (R-NC) as Ranking Member.

We have also participated in what seems like countless hearings and meetings to discuss pending legislation for veterans, among them a VSO roundtable typically held at the beginning of each new Congress.

Our expectations revolve around legislation that will change disability and health care benefits for veterans. Hearings during the second session of the 110th Congress began a process that was left incomplete but that can now move forward. New in the mix, of course, are a new President, a new VA Secretary, and many new members of the House and Senate.

Although we felt fortunate this year that VA appropriations for Fiscal Year 2009 were passed by Congress and signed on time during the first week of October, certainly a rarity, we remain concerned that future VA health care budgets receive quicker action so that critically needed funding will be adequate, dependable, and timely each year. The uniqueness of 2009 serves only to highlight the need for a reformation of the budget process for veterans health care.

Emphasizing the point on the negative side is the fact that again this year we face uncertainty regarding passage of the annual Military Construction and Veterans Appropriations (MILCON/VA) bill. The period of time affected by this bill would begin with the new fiscal year that actually begins on October 1, 2009, which in federal government terms is FY 2010. The reason for this uncertainty is that the new budget proposal from the Office of Management and Budget in the executive branch will be sent to Congress more than six weeks later than usual.

Further delaying MILCON/VA this year is that during much of late January and early February, both the legislative and executive branches have been consumed with debate and passage of the much publicized American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, better known as the stimulus package, as a first priority in the face of America’s ailing economy.

Items of interest related to the package include provisions for disabled veterans and seniors relying on Social Security benefits. These provisions were originally proposed by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT) and offer a one-time payment of $300 to veterans receiving disability compensation and pension benefits from VA. Also included in the package is $50 million for services to older individuals who are blind under Title VII, Chapter 2, of the Rehabilitation Act.

A Jump Start for Advance Funding

 

The Partnership for Veterans Health Care Budget Reform, of which BVA has been a member for nine years with eight other Congressionally chartered VSOs, made a strong push for Advance Funding at the end of the 110th Congress. In January, we picked up right where we left off with visits to several offices on Capitol Hill and a letter to President Obama signed by Executive Directors of each organization.

In response, we reported in the last issue that Chairmen Filner and Akaka introduced the Veterans Health Care Budget Reform Acts of 2008 into the House and Senate, respectively, on September 18 of last year. We also mentioned that the two had pledged to reintroduce new bills early in the 111th Congress, perhaps as soon as January. We believed at the time that the bill was introduced too late in the session to pass but that the idea could gain some traction later, especially since one of the significant co-sponsors was then Democratic Senator Obama of Illinois.

On February 12, the Chairmen proved true to their word, introducing the Veterans Health Care Budget Reform and Transparency Act of 2009 at a press conference in the Russell Senate Office Building. Despite the short notice, the briefing took place in a packed room of media, Members of Congress who are co-sponsoring the bills, several representatives from each of the nine partnership organizations, and other individuals and organizations strongly affected by budget delays nearly every year.

Chairman Bob Filner, left, with Tom Zampieri at February 12 Advance Funding press announcement.
Chairman Bob Filner, left, with Tom Zampieri at February 12 Advance Funding press announcement.

All of the nine partnership organizations also issued separate press releases supporting the bills and posted them to their respective websites. To read the BVA press release, go to www.bva.org/news/. For additional updates and details related to Advance Funding legislation, blinded veterans should visit the partnership’s website, www.fundingforvets.org. In addition to updated information, the site is complete with background information outlining the funding problem and possible solutions. An abundance of supporting documents is also available on the site.

 

Continuum of Care Programs Expand

 

VA reports that more than 44 of its medical centers have either received or been approved for VA centralized funding for a variety of basic, intermediate, and advanced blind or low-vision programs. The ideal is to offer a Full Continuum of Care to the Nation’s veterans who have vision problems that could eventually lead to legal blindness.

Since this was a three-year plan for the increase in low-vision and blind outpatient programs, we will attempt to ensure that the FY 2010 appropriations include $9 million for that purpose. We hope that many of our members are already being served by these programs nationwide. We would appreciate any feedback that our readers can provide regarding their effectiveness.

Vision Centers Status Report

 

Our previous Legislative Update highlighted the appointment of Colonel Donald Gagliano as the first Director of the newly created Vision Centers of Excellence (VCE), which are to be located in four different sites. Updates prior to the last one described the collective efforts of BVA and numerous other organizations to bring this technology program to fruition.

The major objective of VCE is the tracking of all eye-wounded service members for both Department of Defense (DoD) and VA purposes. Although VA reports that 84 individuals have attended residential Blind Rehabilitation Centers (BRCs) and that there are a total of 132 legally blind Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and Operation Enduring Freedom, Afghanistan (OEF) service members, we are not convinced that this represents the actual number that are out there.

Not surprising but still disappointing, the challenge with VCE is once again with funding. The Pentagon did pledge $3 million for FY 2009 toward its establishment but BVA has been at the forefront of fighting to ensure that the full $5.5 million is provided for the four sites to begin operation.

The discrepancy between Members of Congress telling DoD that there was sufficient funding appropriated in the last War Supplemental legislation to cover the $5.5 million, and Pentagon officials claiming that there was no money, was reported in a USA Today (Section A) story on January 29. We are increasingly frustrated by the slow implementation of something we believe is so important, either for political reasons or other reasons of which we may not yet be aware.

The good news is that we have two highly regarded experts to head up VCE in Gagiliano and his Deputy Director, Claude Cowan. The bad news, at press time, is that they have no real budget or key staff support. The administrative headquarters for VCE was to have 10 additional staff members to operate and begin the work in this new major program. We are surprised that more than a year has passed since enactment of the law and that VCE still has few resources.

If and when VCE eventually does lift off the ground in FY 2009, VA will have, at its disposal, $6.9 million in directed funds that was inserted into the FY 2009 MILCON/VA appropriations. The money was to be used for sites designated by VA to become “cooperative” Vision Centers of Excellence. We do not have the specific plans as to how the cooperative centers will operate and how they will affect eye care services for both newly wounded war veterans and older visually impaired veterans from previous conflicts.

Medical Research on Vision and Vision Loss

 

We have recently collaborated with James Jorkasky, Executive Director of the National Alliance for Eye and Vision Research (NAEVR), on new initiatives to increase funding for research. The specific areas include those affecting service personnel returning from combat with eye injuries and potential National Institutes of Health studies that examine age-related eye diseases.

NAEVR is especially supportive of the latter initiative, not because of its affinity for BVA but because the results could benefit all Americans with degenerative eye diseases.

Our joint efforts are often noted in NAEVR publications. The organization credits BVA with bringing greater awareness to Members of Congress on the importance of public and private research funding. One of our joint objectives is for eye and vision research to remain part of the Congressionally Directed Medical Research Program funded through DoD. As grant applicants grow each year, we also hope that appropriations for such research can be raised to $10 million in FY 2010 from the $5.4 million funded in FY 2008. The $5.4 million appropriated last year funded six grants.

Unfinished but Important Business

 

The true legislative “junkie” will remember that the House passed the Veterans Health Care Policy Enhancement Act of 2008 last July 30. The bill prohibited VA from requiring co-payments for hospital or nursing home care of catastrophically disabled veterans.

We hoped that the bill would be included in a couple of Committee packages of benefits legislation on the Senate side. Unfortunately, this never happened and the bill died. We are now working with Chairmen Filner and Akaka on reintroducing the legislation early in the 111th Congress. We believe it will have strong bipartisan support.

The Veterans Health Care Policy Enhancement Act, or new legislation with a different name this year, is significant to many of our blinded veterans who cannot afford to enroll in an inpatient BRC because of both travel costs and high co-payments that can reach up to $1,500 for admission.

Also left over from last year was another legislative item about which we have been long concerned. Representative Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX-18) introduced a bill that would provide higher education scholarships to students enrolled in blind rehabilitation programs and who would be willing to go to work within the VA system for a period of time after graduation.

Representative Lee appears to subscribe to the adage, “If at first you don’t, succeed, try, try again,” as she introduced H.R. 228 on January 7, one day after the new Congress convened. BVA will work to move this legislation as quickly as possible through the House and, at the same time, locate a Senate sponsor.

With VA actively recruiting 35 Blind Rehabilitation Outpatient Specialists (BROS) across the system, the scholarships would constitute a significantly attractive personnel employment program for this critical work. Regional groups could be helpful in spreading the word that there are presently widespread shortages of these health care providers. 

Keep Abreast, Stay Involved 

 

BVA appreciates the efforts made by many of our members and their families this past year to understand the issues in which BVA is involved and to actively support our positions. We can promise that these efforts have indeed made a difference.

We will continue to work with the new Congress. We will also begin to establish the all-important relationships at VA, many of which are new with the appointments made by President Obama in December and January (see Of Note).

By the time this issue is delivered to our readers, we will have already introduced our BVA Legislative Committee, consisting of several Board members, to Secretary Shinseki at the VA Central Office. This will have occurred in conjunction with our mid-winter Board meetings March 5-7 and President Jones’ oral testimony to a joint session of the House and Senate VA Committees on March 5. A more detailed written version of the testimony is now online on the House VA Committee website.

We encourage our members to keep up on the legislation and issues that affect them. Because the Bulletin is published just four times annually, timely information is most easily accessed through the Legislative Alerts. I am usually successful in sending out at least one alert per week. A bit frustrating is the fact that so few of our members are on our list to receive these communications. To register, simply send an email message to bvlistmaster@gmail.com. Include your name, email address, postal address, and regional group affiliation.

Another way to stay in touch is through email and discussion groups online that have been initiated and now hosted by BVA members. In January, for example, “Blinded Vets and Friends” held an online session on Roxio Easy Creator. In early February, they conducted a class on the VA initiative My HealthE Vet, a web-based application enabling veterans to conveniently and securely access both general and personal health information. A couple of weeks later the vets used the chatroom to discuss an Internet feature called Skype.

“Blinded Vets and Friends” holds monthly meetings and regular chats on subjects that also touch on VA services that come through Visual Impairment Services Teams (VISTS) and BROS. The discussions are not limited to technology. The VA benefits these groups discuss have often originated with BVA’s advocacy in both Washington and at the local level.

I highly recommend participating in such group discussions and interactions whenever possible.