Legislative Update 

by Tom Zampieri

Legislation Landmark Finally Achieved

 

As is always the case each summer, it was great to meet and talk with BVA members and their families at our historic 65th National Convention here in Washington, DC. I enjoyed the opportunity to provide a government relations update for those in attendance.

Our Nation’s Capital experienced one of the hottest summers on record. Fortunately, Mother Nature sandwiched in a week of milder temperatures for our convention.

We were also pleased to host still another exceptional group of recently blinded service members and their families as part of our Operation Peer Support initiative, the fifth group since its inception in 2006. We very much enjoyed having them with us and hope that the time for them was well spent.

Left to right, 65th National Convention Operation Peer Support participants James Nealey, Dexter Durrante, James O’Neil, Simon Brown Leia Larson, and Douglas Cereghin.
Left to right, 65th National Convention Operation Peer Support participants James Nealey, Dexter Durrante, James O’Neil, Simon Brown Leia Larson, and Douglas Cereghin.

The month of September brought a post-convention success that BVA had been seeking for almost two decades. Although this legislation currently affects a relatively small number of blinded veterans, the fact that the seemingly hopeless efforts associated with it have now born fruit make it well worth mention.

With passage of the landmark legislation, Congress removed the nonservice-connected veterans’ pension offset for those receiving a state annuity.

The Veterans’ Benefits Act of 2010, or H.R. 3219, was enacted by both the House of Representatives and the Senate on September 29. This large Veterans’ Benefits Omnibus bill was then sent to the White House for signature and signed by President Obama on October 13.

Section 604 of the law allows blinded nonservice-connected veterans who currently receive a small state annuity in the State of New York to keep the annuity without losing anything from their VA pension. The text of the provision states that low-income veterans currently receiving a VA pension may receive payments of up to $5,000 from states or municipalities without offsetting the pension benefit.

We thank most especially Representative Brian Higgins (D-NY-27), who first introduced the basis of this legislation in H.R. 3485, the Veterans Pensions Protection Act, back in July 2009 after we brought the issue to his attention. He also advocated a fix to the measure in testimony before the Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs three months later.

Representative John Hall (D-NY-19), Chairman of the aforementioned Subcommittee, was relentless in pushing the legislation forward throughout the process. Several concerned and persistent BVA members in New York, most recently Ralph Chinelly and Dennis O’Connell, must also be congratulated and thanked for their efforts.

To recap the essence of this achievement, New York State provides blinded veterans with a “Blind Veteran Annuity” of $1,173.84 per year. Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey have similar programs. Veterans that receive both this annuity and a VA pension have their pension offset by the amount of the annuity. The legislation sponsored by Representative Higgins stops VA from offsetting veterans’ pensions due to the state annuity or other benefits offered by state and local governments. For a variety of reasons, many attempts to legislatively change this classification had previously failed.

As the most recent legislation moved forward, members of the House Committee staff pledged that they would include it in what became the Veterans’ Benefits Omnibus bill. Kimberly Ross of the House VA Committee majority staff was instrumental in preventing its removal. Senator John Kerry (D-MA) must also be recognized for his sponsorship of the companion bill, S. 3118, last March.

We encourage veterans in New York who receive nonservice-connected pensions to speak with their VIST Coordinators regarding this change, informing them that their VA pensions are no longer offset by the annuity.

While our focus in H.R. 3219 was the state annuity issue, we were also pleasantly surprised that the automobile allowance for service-connected disabled veterans was raised from the current amount of $11,000 to $18,900. Also increased was the national cemetery burial and funeral plot benefit, which went from $300 to $700.

A Clarification on HISA Grant Changes

 

In my previous Update, I reported on changes to the Disabled Veterans Home Improvement and Structural Alteration (HISA) grant. Legislation enacted earlier this year resulted in the first changes to HISA grants since 1992. I provided information on the increases to maximum amounts of the grants for both service-connected and nonservice-connected veterans as found in Title 38 of Section 1717(a)(2) of the United States Code.

Unfortunately, an error occurred during the editing process and one of the stated numbers was not correct. HISA increased the maximum amounts of the grants for service-connected veterans from $4,100 to $6,800 and for nonservice-connected veterans from $1,200 to $2,000. The Update indicated that both amounts had risen to the same figure of $6,800, which was erroneous. Our editing team has apologized for the mistake and any confusion it might have caused among our members and other readers.

We have been told that VA Central Office is working on the new rules for these increased HISA rates and that they might be complete sometime during the current autumn season. BVA is also working to get the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) to provide HISA certificates of eligibility to veterans at the time their service connection rating is determined. This would save time and resources on both ends.

Additional Blinded Vets to Access SHA Grants

 

H.R. 5360, introduced by House Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity Chairwoman Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D-SD-1) and Representative John Boozman (R-AR-3) on May 22, was passed with bi-partisan support in the full House on September 28.

This legislation changes the current visual acuity standard for blindness from 5/200 to 20/200 and/or a field of vision of 20 degrees or less. This means that additional blinded veterans will be eligible for specially adapted housing assistance grants since the standard of blindness is now less stringent. The amount of the grant has also increased by $1,000. Its total is now $13,560 with passage of H.R. 5360.

The bill was sent to the Senate just as Congress was recessing for the month of October. It will be considered during the lame duck session but there may not be sufficient time for a vote. Much as we dislike stating this, the possibility exists that the bill will die in the Senate VA Committee, requiring that the process start all over again in the new Congress.

Co-Payment Issues

 

We continue to receive inquiries regarding the legislation to eliminate co-payments for catastrophically disabled veterans who are nonservice-connected, made possible by passage of S. 1963 (Section 504) on April 22 and its signature into law by President Obama on May 5. The legislation covers payments for medical care, prescription drugs, or inpatient rehabilitation care.

Because S. 1963 was a top priority for BVA in this session of Congress, we are happy to report that VA is making positive progress in implementing the policies required by the new legislation. Several of our veterans from different medical centers have reported that they are no longer being charged these co-payments. Additional good news is that other veterans were refunded money that they had needlessly and unknowingly paid during the summer, which was clearly after the legislation was signed into law.

We were gratified to hear from some of our members at the national convention that this legislation directly benefited them and their families and, in some cases, resulted in financial relief during tough economic times.

Some VIST Coordinators have told us that that they are working hard to get nonservice-connected veterans now in Category 4 changed into the catastrophically disabled category. VA Central Office told us that it would take 45 days for the new internal policy to be fully implemented in VA Medical Centers nationwide.

We know for a certainty that such medical centers have been instructed for the time being not to bill the nonservice-connected, catastrophically disabled veterans for their medical care. We strongly urge veterans to contact their VIST Coordinators to seek assistance with this new policy so that all co-payments will henceforth be correctly eliminated.

Beneficiary Travel for the Nonservice-Connected

 

According to Title 38, Section 111 of the U.S. Code, nonservice-connected veterans are not presently eligible for air travel benefits that would pay their way to medical services that are not available to them at their local facilities.

The most relevant scenario for blinded veterans involves their travel to and from a residential Blind Rehabilitation Center, a trip that involves a long distance for many.

We have been told by several sources that beneficiary travel rules are being strictly enforced and that BVA members are being denied assistance with airfare when attending a blind center.

Try as we have, we have not yet had success in solving this problem. During the next session of Congress, we will work on amending Section 111. Successfully doing so would remove the financial hardship for disabled veterans who must travel to a blind center for rehabilitation at their own expense.

We expect a very tough fight on an issue such as this.

President Signs Accessibility Act

 

Additional recently passed legislation of interest affecting blinded veterans and their families is the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010. In our summer issue, we reported and expressed our appreciation that on May 26 Sergeant Brian Pearce, one of our past Operation Peer Support participants, had testified in favor of this legislation before the Senate Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, and the Internet. Later in the summer Sergeant Major Jesse Acosta provided similar testimony on the House side.

The law was signed by President Obama on October 8. It will increase access to Internet, television, and telecommunications technologies using such tools as closed captioning and video description. The Act will also improve delivery of emergency information during a disaster or crisis to ensure that no person with a disability is without the necessary information. It will also help increase employment opportunities for people with disabilities.

Debt Commission Report and Future VA Budgets

 

The federal budget deficit issue seems to be attracting headlines everywhere these days, in part because this is a midterm election year. The National Commission on Fiscal Reform, often referred to as the “Debt Commission,” had a report due for release on December 1.

BVA Past National President and World War II veteran Peter McKenna, right, enjoys moment with Director of Government Relations Tom Zampieri at 65th National Convention. In 1951, Peter was BVA’s fifth of the now 36 National Presidents. He was also among the organization’s first 210 members.
BVA Past National President and World War II veteran Peter McKenna, right, enjoys moment with Director of Government Relations Tom Zampieri at 65th National Convention. In 1951, Peter was BVA’s fifth of the now 36 National Presidents. He was also among the organization’s first 210 members.

The report, directed to both the new Congress and the Obama administration, will outline methods of reducing the growing deficit. Veterans Service Organizations and Military Service Organizations are already growing concerned over comments from some members of the Commission that “everything” across the board must be cut in order to reduce federal spending.

In Washington, every organization and government agency fights to protect the programs of special interest to its constituency. Organizations representing seniors fight to protect Social Security, Medicare, and new prescription drug benefits. Agricultural organizations fight to protect food programs. The Department of Homeland Security points to global terrorist threats in defending its budget. The same holds true for the Departments of Defense, Education, Energy, etc. Everyone has documented needs and anecdotal evidence for their requests.

Over the past decades, the choice more often than not was the easy one—increase programs and worry about finding the money sometime later. As the old saying goes, “The chickens are coming home to roost,” and now everyone wants to start cutting—unless of course it is their favorite program. A Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA), for example, will not occur again this year for Social Security recipients, military retirees, and disabled veterans.

With state governments also cutting social services in the areas of education, police forces, and fire departments, we wonder what effects such cuts will have on disabled Americans. Where will they turn next for help? We intend to keep our membership informed regarding the recommendations of the Debt Commission. We will also offer our perspective on the impact of the new make-up in Congress and potential changes ahead as a consequence.

We will further comment on whether our recent gains are threatened and to what extent. We must be vigilant in assuring that such gains are protected and that our blinded veterans everywhere have the access to the care and services they need in order to live independently.