Legislative Update 

by Tom Zampieri

Congress, President, and VA Recognize BVA Milestone

 

On April 7, President Barack Obama signed House Joint Resolution 80 congratulating BVA on its 65th anniversary. The resolution had been drafted and introduced by Representative Debbie Halvorson (D-IL-11) in early March and passed the House of Representatives on March 18.

With a big push from Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs Chairman Daniel Akaka (D-HI), the resolution was also approved in the full Senate on March 26, the day before Congress adjourned for Easter recess.

Besides acknowledging the Association’s humble beginnings and 65-year history, the resolution also calls upon all Americans to remember blinded veterans on March 28 in future years. Despite the other issues that preoccupied Congress earlier this year, including the health care debates and the February storms that closed everything for a few days, we feel fortunate to have seen the resolution move through both the House and Senate and onto the President’s desk. BVA appreciates the extraordinary help we received from Representative Halvorson, her staff, and many others who made the resolution possible.

Adding to the excitement of this event was the fact that we obtained a copy of the document containing a visible Presidential signature less than two weeks later. Secretary of Veterans Affairs (VA) Eric K. Shinseki also wrote a letter to Tom Miller offering “warm best wishes to you and all members of BVA on the occasion of your organization’s 65th anniversary.” He continued: “On behalf of the Department, and as a fellow veteran, thank you for your service from a grateful nation and for the inspiration your membership has given to all who serve in the defense of freedom. Happy Anniversary and best wishes for many more years of success representing blinded veterans.”

H.R. 4360

 

We are also pleased to report on a bill that Roy Kekahuna referred to in his President’s Page in the last Bulletin. The legislation proposed that the new VA Blind Rehabilitation Center (BRC) in Long Beach, California, be named in honor of Major Charles R. (Rob) Soltes, Jr.

Subsequent Legislative Alerts indicated that Major Soltes was the first military optometrist to be killed in action in Iraq. He was called to active duty in July 2004 at the age of 36 and deployed to Iraq just two months later. On October 13 of that same year, an Improvised Explosive Device entered his convoy vehicle and detonated.

Representative John Campbell (R-CA-48) introduced H.R. 4360 in November 2009 to name the BRC after Major Soltes. The bill passed the House 417-0 in March and on April 19 it passed the Senate by unanimous consent. At press time, the only action still lacking was a Presidential signature although the Orange County Register ran a newspaper story the day after the bill passed the Senate.

The official full name of the BRC will be “Major Charles Robert Soltes, Jr., O.D. Department of Veterans Affairs Blind Rehabilitation Center.”

Meeting in the office of Representative John Campbell are, left to right, Legislative Assistant Danica Dawson, Sally Dang, and Chief of Staff Muffy Lewis.
Meeting in the office of Representative John Campbell are, left to right, Legislative Assistant Danica Dawson, Sally Dang, and Chief of Staff Muffy Lewis.

BVA has been firmly behind the legislation because of Major Soltes’ story of unwavering commitment and outstanding service to the eye injured. We believe that his name should be forever associated with a facility designed to rehabilitate men and women with ocular diseases or injuries. Fortunately, with the encouragement of Earl Ivie in Los Angeles, the local California Veterans Service Organizations (VSOs) were all willing to sign onto letters of support.

Major Soltes left behind his wife, Sally Dang, O.D., and three young sons. We had the privilege of meeting Sally at our 64th National Convention in Portland and accompanying her on visits to Congressional offices when she visited us here in Washington in mid-April. 

Sally is a low-vision optometrist herself who received her training at the West Haven BRC after graduating from the New England College of Optometry. She recently volunteered to provide low-vision services and care for blinded veterans to fulfill a promise she made to her husband before he deployed to Iraq.

“Major Soltes was a dedicated Army officer, and an outstanding clinician, educator, and military optometrist,” said Chairman Akaka in a statement for the Congressional Record after the Senate bill had passed by unanimous consent. “Naming the Long Beach VA BRC in his honor would be a fitting tribute to his lasting memory.”

Advance Funding and VA Increases

 

Together, the 110th and 111th Congresses have provided for a 55 percent increase in discretionary VA funding. Nearly 85 percent of VA discretionary spending is allotted to medical care for veterans.

Because of the recently passed Advance Funding concept, VA will, from this point forward, always have a two-year budget with which to plan and work. Every medical center will now be able to secure staff and services for veterans on a much more advanced basis and without the delays that have been so characteristic of the past 20 years.

The following is a summary of significant budget information for both the current fiscal year and the next two years:

FY 2010—President Obama signed a funding bill, the Consolidated Appropriations Act (P.L. 111-117), providing a path to restoring and revitalizing the services provided to veterans. The amount of funding added was $14.5 billion above the total for last year’s budget. The FY 2010 budget was the third consecutive year in which the request of the VSO Independent Budget was exceeded.

FY 2011—The budget for this year recommends an increase of $4.3 billion in VA discretionary spending. This amount is 8 percent more than it was the previous year, which is also far above the medical inflation rate of 3.2 percent. The House VA Committee supports the President’s historic budget request, recommends targeted additional investment, and commits to meeting VA’s needs for the coming year. VA Blind Rehabilitation Service (BRS) will have a budget of more than $126.9 million for FY 2011 if the appropriation request is approved by Congress.

FY 2012—The budget proposal from the Obama administration for 2012 is the first to be affected by Advance Funding. The administration has recommended an increase of at least 5 percent in the amount to be appropriated, a figure once again higher than projected inflation costs. VSOs have also asked for an increase in both VA research and information technology budgets, which were the only two areas in which budgets did not meet our recommendations for the previous year. The BRS budget for 2012 will be approximately $133.3 million. All of the increases since FY 2009 have allowed for significant implementation of full Continuum of Care services.


VCE Progress

 

We continue to monitor and review the status of the Vision Center of Excellence (VCE) with the Center Director, Colonel Donald Gagliano. We recently learned from him that Major Derrick Johnson has been appointed VCE Chief of Staff.

Major Johnson is active duty Army and served two combat one-year tours in Iraq and a one-year tour of combat duty in Afghanistan. He comes to VCE with an impressive resume.

We have also learned that Ophthalmologist Mary Lawrence, M.D. has been appointed as the new VA Deputy Director for VCE, replacing Dr. Claude Cowan. Dr. Lawrence joins VCE after working for several years in the eye clinic at the VA Medical Center in Minneapolis. She is a former colleague of Dr. Robert A. Petzel, newly appointed VA Under Secretary for Health.

Despite the progress, VA has lagged behind in providing other key staffing for VCE. We continue to press both Department of Defense (DoD) and VA leadership to quicken the pace to fully establish this important center and eye registry.

Another note of progress is that the House Armed Services Committee held its first hearing on the four DoD Centers of Excellence, of which the Vision Center is one. The Surgeon Generals of the Army, Navy, and Air Force all provided testimony on their specific plans for the Centers.

Special Adaptive Housing

 

BVA has also been working closely with Representative Stephanie Herseth-Sandlin (D-SD-1), Chairman of the VA Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity, on recommendations that the Special Adaptive Housing program be expanded for legally blinded veterans. The current restrictive 5/200 rating to obtain the adaptive housing grants creates a barrier for many of our members who are 20/200 and legally blind but who don’t meet this more restrictive 5/200 standard.

Representative Herseth-Sandlin has drafted a bill that was introduced the week of April 12 to change the legal blindness definition to 20/200 so that additional veterans may qualify for the $12,000 special adaptive housing grant. On the Senate VA Committee side, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) also has a draft version waiting to be introduced that would both eliminate the 5/200 requirement and raise the amount of the grant to $30,000.

At issue with respect to how far these bills will progress this session are the costs associated with bringing about such changes. Because all Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) funding increases must find either a new funding source or an offset (eliminating something else in order to move a bill), we must first find out what the total costs will be before we can determine if locating offsets will be possible.

Veterans Pension Protection Act

 

The House Committee has still not been able to locate funding that would allow the Veterans Pension Protection Act of 2009, H.R. 3485, to move from Subcommittee consideration to the full Committee. Representative Brian Higgins (D-NY-27) introduced this bill last year.

Blinded veterans receiving nonservice-connected pensions generally have limited incomes. They are clearly being penalized by the current VA pension laws, which require that all income be considered for pension purposes. These small annuities in the state of New York will continue to be subtracted, or “taxed,” and considered income by VA until this legislation is enacted.

Better news is that, as a result of the BVA Legislative Committee meetings with the office of Senator John Kerry (D-MA) in early March, the Senator introduced a companion bill, S. 3118, on March 16. I have been told that the House and Senate are now working toward a final compromise to move the state annuities bill for a mark-up and vote on May 19 as part of a much larger benefits bill that Chairman Akaka wants completed before the Memorial Day recess.

For the first time in a decade, we now have a House bill moving forward and a prominent Senator who has introduced a bill that would fix this long-term problem. I feel safe in reporting that after 12 years of effort, we are closer than ever before. If, by chance, the May 19 (or shortly thereafter) vote does not materialize after all, we hope to keep members of Congress and other key contacts informed and educated about this legislation.

Update on Elimination Of Co-Payments

 

As also reported previously, Representative Halvorson introduced original legislation, H.R. 1335, to eliminate the co-payment for catastrophically disabled veterans who are nonservice-connected and who have been required to pay for inpatient rehabilitation services in the past. The cost to a blinded veteran attending a residential VA BRC is approximately $1,350.

H.R. 1335 was merged into a second bill and passed as H.R. 3219 last July. When a companion bill, S. 1963, passed the Senate in December, it contained caregiver benefit sections that were different from the House bill.

We learned later that many BVA members had been under the impression that the co-payment legislation had become law because it had passed both chambers. This was not the case. Rather, it took from mid-December until March 24 for a House and Senate Conference Committee to work out final agreements. At that point, S. 1963, the sweeping legislation that also contained provisions for caregivers and women veterans, was moved for new floor votes in both the House and Senate.

Our original hope was that these bills would be voted on before the end of May. Much to our pleasant surprise, however, the two-year battle ended in the late evening on April 22 as the Senate approved S. 1963, the Caregivers and Veterans Omnibus Health Services Act, by unanimous voice vote. The legislation had passed the House 417-0 the previous day. On May 5, President Obama signed the bill into law.

We learned a few months ago that some BVA members were under the false impression that the co-payment provision of the bill would eliminate medication co-payments for disabled veterans. This is also not true. The elimination of co-payments is only for inpatient medical or rehabilitation services. Veterans will still be required to co-pay for outpatient medications as before. Because the addition of a provision to eliminate this co-payment would have put the entire bill at risk, those pushing hardest for passage determined that it was best to leave out such a provision.

Two additional sweeteners came with passage of this very comprehensive bill. One is a provision for a scholarship program for future VA Blind Rehabilitation Outpatient Specialists for which we have been advocating for three years.

The second relates to beneficiary air travel. Under the newly enacted law, the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) is now required to provide air travel to a veteran that requires special services.