by Tom Zampieri
Our most recent Update in the Spring issue reported that the Director of the Vision Center of Excellence (VCE), Colonel Donald Gagliano, had appointed active duty Army Major Derrick Johnson as the VCE Chief of Staff. He is actually the VCE Executive Officer. The new VCE Chief of Staff from VA is Avery Smith, who will manage all administrative issues within the agency.
We are sorry for any confusion this misunderstanding may have created. We old military veterans often equate an Executive Officer (XO) with a person in charge of everyone. I should have differentiated the position from the Chief of Staff. We will provide a full organizational listing of the VCE staff in the next issue.
HISA and Adaptive Housing
The Disabled Veterans Home Improvement and Structural Alteration Act of 2009 (HISA) was introduced by House Committee on Veterans Affairs Ranking Member Steve Buyer (R-IN-4) this spring and quickly enacted. The legislation has resulted in the first changes to HISA grants since 1992.
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. This is found in the United States Code, 1717(a)(2) of Title 38.
VA Central Office (VACO) is working on the new rules for these increased HISA rates. Hopefully they will be completed before our convention. To avoid delays for our veterans, we are working to get the VA Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) to provide certificates of eligibility to them at the time their disabilities are determined to be service connected.
As a follow-up to our testimony on adaptive housing grants before the House VA Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity last October, we again provided testimony before the same Committee on essentially the same subject on June 10. Our focus in the most recent hearing was H.R. 5360, introduced by Subcommittee Chairwoman Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D-SD-1) and Representative John Boozman (R-AR-3) on May 22. H.R. 5360 would change the current 5/200 VA acuity standard of blindness to the nationally recognized standard of 20/200 for eligibility to receive the $12,560 Special Adaptive Housing Grant.
The hearing went well. Veterans Service Organization (VSO) and VA witnesses testified in favor of the bill, which was scheduled for a Subcommittee mark-up and vote in late June. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) plans to introduce a companion bill in the Senate before time in this session runs out.
Co-Payments for the Nonservice-Connected
One of our top priorities this year has been the elimination of the co-payment of $1,340 for catastrophically disabled, nonservice-connected blinded veterans admitted to residential VA Blind Rehabilitation Centers (BRCs) on an inpatient basis. BVA continues to receive inquiries about the enacted S. 1963 (Section 504).
Implementation of this legislation is now occurring internally within the VA system. In a recent meeting at VACO, we were told that it would take approximately 120 days for the policy to be developed. This includes a directive sent by VACO to each VA Medical Center with instructions to refrain from billing nonservice-connected veterans receiving BRC training.
“If a blinded veteran is admitted and charged the co-payment after May 1, 2010 and/or after the new VA policy is distributed, he/she would be entitled to a refund of the co-payment,” the statement said. Unfortunately, we have not received any word regarding how long the refund process might take.
Because of this important legislation affecting our members and other constituents, we strongly encourage all blinded veterans interested in attending a BRC to get their admissions applications completed as soon as possible and be ready for the opportunity that may soon come their way. Please work with your VIST Coordinator in doing so. We believe this new VA policy could be in place this summer before our national convention.
A section of S. 1963 explained travel for veterans requiring specialized services that are not available at their local facility. The Senate Committee inserted this to help disabled veterans obtain help for air travel when needed.
The aforementioned section did not change Title 38 U.S. Code Section 111 on beneficiary travel. Section 305 of S. 1963 “authorizes the Secretary to pay travel expenses for veterans receiving treatment at VA facilities at the rate of 41.5 cents per mile.” This also allows the Secretary, one year after the enactment of this law, to adjust the rate to make it equal to the mileage reimbursement rate for the use of privately owned vehicles by government employees on official business. If the rate adjustment is a decrease from the previous one, the law requires a justification to Congress.
Included within this reimbursement is travel by air if it is the only practical way to reach a VA facility. It requires the Secretary to consider the veteran’s medical condition and any other impediments to the use of ground transportation in evaluating the practicality of air travel.
The new section is an important step in our advocacy of VA air transportation for blinded veterans attending a BRC. If airfare payments are rejected for blinded veterans whose only option to get to a BRC is by air, we will have our test case.
In the next session of Congress we plan to work on amending Title 38 to fix this hardship.
The Veterans Caregiver and Veterans Health Services Act of 2009 included several major VA provisions to make payments to service-connected veterans with disabilities. The provisions stipulated that a family member stay at home and provide care.
This benefit includes not only the current generation of Iraq and Afghanistan service-connected veterans but also the war injured of earlier conflicts. The latter will be eligible for these payments in late FY 2011 once VA establishes a regulatory policy for administering them. Unfortunately, we expect the rule-making process to be a rather slow one. We have been told that it may take more than 180 days to take effect.
Patiently Persevering with Pension Protection Act
The long saga continues in trying to locate funding so that the Veterans Pension Protection Act of 2009 can move from Subcommittee consideration to the full House VA Committee.
Those most concerned about this legislation from the state of New York will recall from previous updates that Representative Brian Higgins (D-NY-27) introduced this bill last year. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that the change in benefits law associated with these state annuities, which are considered income and taxable under current VA pension laws, would have a budget impact of just $100,000 per year.
Blinded veterans receiving nonservice-connected pensions generally have very limited incomes and are clearly being penalized by the current 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.
The amazing thing about this delay is that VA itself actually testified in favor of the legislation. The House VA Committee staff director has pledged to try moving the bill up for full Committee vote by August 5 and to work with Senate Committee staffers to include the companion bill, S. 3118, in a late summer VA benefits omnibus bill. S. 3118 was originally introduced on March 16.
We are very disappointed that neither Senator from New York has co-sponsored this bill in the Senate. Hopefully members on both sides of Capitol Hill and other key contacts will become more aware of a relatively small piece of legislation that is nevertheless extremely vital to many blinded veterans.
Operation Peer Support
I have continued to work on bringing blinded Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and Operation Enduring Freedom, Afghanistan (OEF) veterans to our national conventions as part of our own Operation Peer Support initiative. Funding is a challenge and we continue to ask for donations from corporations and individuals to support this ongoing effort.
Last year, 12 newly blinded service members came to Portland, Oregon. Each brought a family member funded by the program. Now in its fifth year, Operation Peer Support will provide an opportunity for what we believe will be approximately 16 service members to attend the 65th National Convention in Washington, DC. We also expect some of our past participants to return this year.
Operation Peer Support has resulted in 41 OIF and OEF veterans having joined BVA. The program has also resulted in numerous positive newspaper, radio, and television features.
Brian Pearce, Angela Testify on Hill
On May 26, Brian Pearce, one of our Operation Peer Support participants who attended the BVA 62nd National Convention in Albuquerque, provided compelling testimony before the Senate Committee on Commerce’s Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, and the Internet, chaired by Senator John Kerry (D-MA). Brian was accompanied at the witness table by his wife, Angela, who was also with us at the 2007 convention.
Blinded veteran Brian Pearce appeared before Senate Subcommittee on Communications and Technology on May 26. Proceedings of the hearing were close captioned and broadcast through numerous media outlets for the deaf.
The hearing was entitled “Americans with Disabilities Act at 20.” It was convened to examine the benefits of proposed legislation, the Equal Access to Twenty-First Century Communications Act (S. 3304), which would improve accessibility to technology for the blind and deaf communities on the 20-year anniversary of ADA.
H.R. 3101, the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act sponsored by Representative Ed Markey (D-MA-7), is the companion bill in the House. It mirrors the Senate bill in many ways. The House bill enjoys the endorsement of the disability community and major industry players. Markey himself testified at the Senate hearing and congratulated his Senate counterparts for their leadership.
Brian and other hearing witnesses detailed some of their frustrations in trying to use cell phones, PDA devices, and cable television systems equipped with the latest in technological gadgetry. The legislation would mandate improvements by telecommunications companies and internet service providers.
“While I was not a telecommunications technology expert before my injury, the frustrating thing about recovery for me as a sensory disabled person has been not being able to access the opportunities everyone else takes for granted or depends on for everyday life,” Brian said in his testimony. “As technology affecting daily life advances at a much more rapid pace, the means to access it for people like me lags way behind, despite my natural curiosity and desire to try things out.”
A Word About Seamless Transition
With the close proximity of BVA National Headquarters an advantage, we have continued our visits with blinded OIF and OEF service members and their family members at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and the National Naval Medical Center.
I regret to report that we still see Seamless Transition issues with active duty, National Guard, and reserve members mistakenly being transferred from Military Treatment Facilities (MTFs) to VA Poly Trauma Centers and then back to MTFs. The long delays in conducting and processing medical evaluation boards continue to trouble us. Our Field Service Representatives are working particularly hard with war-injured veterans to assure that they receive in a timely manner all of the specialized medical services and claims assistance to which they are entitled.