by Tom Zampieri
More Hill Testimony and Current Issues
As we reported throughout 2009, BVA had a greater presence on Capitol Hill in House and Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs hearings last year than ever before. We did, in fact, testify seven times during the year.
Left to right, Tom Zampieri, Sean Johnson, Senator Tim Johnson (no relation), and Sean’s wife Melissa at January 21 meeting.
With three additional opportunities already presented to us in this, the second session of the 111th Congress, we’ve barely had time to catch our breath. Indeed, it does not appear that our participation in these hearings will let up anytime soon. In between testimonies, we will continue to provide input to Congress regarding the FY 2011 Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) health care budget and the potential reform of VA’s travel policy for disabled veterans who must travel by airfare to residential Blind Rehabilitation Centers (BRCs). The latter is a high priority for BVA.
On February 4, we provided testimony regarding VA contracting of health care services. I was also asked to locate a witness who could speak about Seamless Transition issues for a House Committee hearing on January 21. Sean Johnson, a blinded Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) veteran from South Dakota who also attended our most recent convention as an Operation Peer Support participant, prepared and delivered the remarks. He was accompanied by his wife, Melissa.
Sean is a three-tour combat Army National Guard veteran. He served in Desert Storm beginning in 1991, followed by a tour in Kosovo. He was deployed to Iraq in 2005, where nearby mortar rounds caused abdominal wounds, Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), and later Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Typical in many cases of TBI, Sean returned home to worsening vision problems. He was blind within a year.
As is the case for many, Sean has struggled to have his Medical Evaluation Board for discharge completed, having waited now two years. He has waited roughly the same amount of time for VA to rate the same medical conditions.
In his remarks, Sean outlined the challenges that he, Melissa, and their children have experienced since he was injured in the spring of 2006. Committee members were gracious in thanking the Johnsons and BVA for representing those who desperately need an improved system of transition from active duty to VA care.
Following Sean’s testimony, he and Melissa met with Senator Tim Johnson (D-SD), Chairman of the Military Construction and VA Appropriations Committee. In addition to being from their home state, Senator Johnson has always been a strong advocate for veterans. He met with us for 30 minutes, asking detailed questions that turned the conversation to our concerns relating to the Vision Center of Excellence (VCE) and its staffing. The visit proved to be an excellent chance to thank Senator Johnson for his past support of several BVA legislative agenda items. He promised to continue that support in the future.
The three of us also met the same day with Senator John Thune (R-SD) in his office. There we discussed the same Seamless Transition issues. Sean again told his story and related the difficulties experienced by family members and other caregivers when there are inordinately long delays and systemic failures in the Seamless Transition process.
VCE Progress and Seamless Transition
We continue to closely follow the progress of the joint DoD and VA Vision Center of Excellence, which is the ultimate solution to the problems surrounding Seamless Transition. VCE Director Colonel Donald Gagliano has made headway in securing administrative staff from DoD in order to fill positions within VCE, but the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) has unfortunately lagged behind in its efforts.
VCE Deputy Directory and well-known VA ophthalmologist Dr. Claude Cowan resigned his position effective December 31. We wish him well in his return to clinical practice at the Washington, DC, VA Medical Center and will miss his advocacy in the position he held for one year as VA’s advocate for this program. We continue to press both DoD and VA leadership for a faster pace in developing this important center and registry for all combat eye wounded.
Special Adaptive Housing
Two important hearings occurred last fall. One took place before the House VA Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs and the other before the Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity. Both require follow-up with various Members of Congress and the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA). The subject of the follow-up relates to recommendations we made to expand the Special Adaptive Housing program to include legally blinded veterans.
The current restrictive 5/200 blindness rating required 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 the more stringent standard. VBA has indicated to us that a change in the required rating would require a Congressional statute change, certainly not an easy thing to accomplish but one that we will nevertheless attempt through key members of the VA committees.
Better news is that VBA will consider improving its handbook descriptions of structural alterations in housing that could affect blinded veterans. At present, such descriptions emphasize alterations that would affect only those with spinal cord injury who use wheelchairs in a home.
We reported in the Bulletin’s Autumn issue that we had been monitoring legislation that would prevent state annuities provided to veterans from being classified as income for tax purposes.
The specific bill, the Veterans Pension Protection Act of 2009, or H.R. 3485, was introduced by Representative Brian Higgins (D-NY-27) and co-sponsored by Representative John Hall (D-NY-19) last year. It would remove the current offset from a veterans pension that now occurs when a nonservice-connected veteran receives a state annuity.
For well over a decade, various attempts to legislatively change this classification have failed.
The most recently proposed legislation has received a surprising amount of support. VA, in fact, testified in its behalf during a hearing on October 8. We commented previously that an obstacle to the legislation is a Congressional Budget Office requirement that the House VA Committee find an offset to pay for it before a full Committee vote can occur.
Happily, we have learned that an offset has been found to cover such costs and hope that the Committee will move the bill up for vote soon. We urge BVA members to keep informed on this effort and to educate their key contacts as to why this legislation is important for those on fixed incomes.
Elimination of Co-Payments
We have also written in recent Updates and Legislative Alerts about progress that has been made in our attempts to get VA co-payments eliminated for catastrophically disabled nonservice-connected veterans.
Representative Debbie Halvorson (D-IL-11) introduced and championed a bill in the House that eventually passed as H.R. 6445. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) introduced companion legislation in May 2009 that was eventually included in a large health care and benefits bill, S. 1963, which eventually passed in December after a six-week delay.
S. 1963 also included a section that serves as companion legislation to a House bill providing funds for a scholarship program to attract new graduates to work as Blind Rehabilitation Outpatient Specialists (BROS). The latter was first introduced by Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) a couple of years ago.
Now comes the hard part, both in understanding and in the process itself. Because S. 1963 contains provisions that are not the same as those contained in H.R. 6445, a Conference Committee from both chambers must convene to draft a final bill to be passed in the House and Senate before being sent to President Obama for signature.
Many of our readers were under the impression that the bill had already been signed and that they would no longer have to make co-payments to be admitted to blind centers. Although this is not yet officially the case, we believe we are closer to its reality.
This bill is a high priority for all of us. We will continue to work on it and keep our members posted through email and our Legislative Alerts of any significant developments.
Service Animal Pilot Program
BVA has recently become concerned about a provision that has been included in the National Defense Authorization Act of 2010 regarding Wounded Warrior K-9 Corps Service Dogs.
The language of the provision included VA funding for a three-year pilot program for guide dog schools and other types of service animal programs for disabled veterans who request dogs. The program would begin as soon as VA can develop guidelines for payment for the various types of dogs.
Because of BVA’s positive relationships with many of the standing guide dog programs and our history of working with VA on policy issues of this nature, we feel we should be involved in this issue. Our concern centers on the dangers inherent in the “sale” of dogs to veterans when the reality is that blinded veterans have received guide dogs for decades without having to pay anything.
We are most concerned that new schools will not provide the training standards required to ensure well-trained guide dogs or service dogs. Most guide dog schools require that animals go through training of nine months or longer and that they be able to respond to at least nine commands.
Aside from input that we will provide, it will ultimately be up to both DoD and VA as to how guide dogs are to be purchased and how payments for their services are to be made.