Legislative Update

by Tom Zampieri


New Beginnings, Challenges For 112th Congress


As is customary every two years here in the Nation’s Capital, we began 2011 with a new Congress that is just now putting together its various committees and establishing its agenda.

The new Chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, Jeff Miller (R-FL-1), is familiar to those who have kept track of our legislative issues over the past few years. Chairman Miller’s district encompasses the Florida panhandle, which undoubtedly houses a large population of veterans. Representative Gus Bilirakis (R-FL-9) is now the Vice Chairman of the full Committee. He is also well known to the BVA membership, having already served on the Committee for the past four years after picking up where his father, Mike, left off upon retirement.

Former Chairman Bob Filner (D-CA-51) has become the Ranking Member on the Committee.

Interestingly, the leadership of both political parties has appointed a large number of new freshmen representatives to the Committee. In addition, each new Subcommittee Chairman is also a freshman Member of Congress.

Representative Ann Marie Buerkle (R-NY-25) is Chairwoman of the Subcommittee on Health while Representative Bill Johnson (R-OH-6) is Chairman of the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations. Representative Jon Runyan (R-NJ-3), former offensive lineman for the Philadelphia Eagles, is the new Chairman of the Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs. Marlin Stutzman (R-IN-3) is Chairman of the Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity.

On the Senate side, Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) has become the first female in history to chair the VA Committee. She is known for her strong advocacy on behalf of veterans over the years. Chairwoman Murray also brings with her ten years of experience on the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee.

We look forward to working with the new leadership even as we acknowledge the work of outgoing Chairman Daniel Akaka (D-HI) the past four years. Prior to his chairmanship, he served for two years as the Ranking Member on the Committee. His influence resulted in the passage of large numbers of key veterans bills, many of which affected blinded veterans.

Senator Richard Burr (R-NC) is continuing as the current Ranking Member. We are also pleased that newly elected Senator John Boozman (R-AR) was appointed to the Senate Committee after having worked closely with him on the House side. As a member of the House Committee, he introduced several bills supporting BVA issues. He has offered to do the same as a new Senator.

Several members of the House Committee were defeated in the November elections. Many of these well informed regarding our partnership with VA in furthering blind rehabilitation services and programs. A formidable task for BVA is to ensure that the positive gains in the area of benefits and specialized health care services are continued. We must educate new Members of Congress regarding the history of this legislation, which reaches across decades, and the new priorities that will undoubtedly emerge.

Budget Deficit and Funding for Veterans


Front page headlines and television newscasts are now highlighting the federal budget issue, especially since the release in December of reports of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform. The “Debt Commission,” as it is most commonly referred to, recommends that all federal agency spending be cut to FY 2008 levels. The new Congress and administration are now arguing as to how to make these reductions.

VA is not exempt from any such reductions. Veterans Service Organizations (VSOs) and Military Service Organizations (MSOs) are increasingly concerned about comments from some in Congress that deep cuts across the board to reduce the federal deficit will negatively impact the care and benefits that disabled veterans have earned. One of the certainties in such a situation is that everyone has a reason, backed by anecdotal and/or empirical evidence, to be exempt from a reduction. This often pits groups against one another for every dollar in every program. It also forces decision makers to search for money in one program that can be sacrificed on behalf of another seemingly more important one.

On February 14, Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki announced the administration’s budget request for VA. The total requested was actually an increase over last year’s budget. We must now wait for Members of Congress to decide what they believe is an appropriate figure. We will forward press releases to our Legislative Alerts group from Congressional offices regarding this issue. Hearings will inevitably be scheduled later.

Because of the advance appropriations for VA health care legislation recently passed, we are now working on a two-year cycle. VA is now able to plan ahead and know what to expect. In addition, while much of the rest of the federal government is presently working under a Continuing Resolution for FY 2011 since Congress failed to pass any of the appropriations bills last September, VA is able to operate within a budget that was approved last year. The VA health care headaches associated with Continuing Resolutions are now gone and the positive impact of this recent landmark legislation has already been felt.

VA has requested a total of $132.2 billion for FY 2012, of which $53.8 billion is intended for medical care. The latter figure represents a 2.5 billion increase over last year. Under the advanced appropriation model signed into law last year, the amount recommended by VA for FY 2013 medical care funding is $55.8 billion.

BRS Budget Figures


It is both interesting and instructive to look at the VA Blind Rehabilitation Service (BRS) budgets and proposed budgets for FY 2010-13.

For FY 2010, our most recently completed fiscal year ending September 30, the budget was $113,629,000. For FY 2011, the present year, BRS has been funded at $123,101,000. The appropriations request for FY 2012 is $138,509,000 and for FY 2013 the advanced appropriations projected request will be $154,670,000.

All of the aforementioned figures obviously reflect increases from one year to the next. The additional funding is intended to cover the new outpatient blind rehabilitation programs that we have so frequently referenced the past few years. It will also be responsible for expenses associated with the ten currently operating Blind Rehabilitation Centers (BRCs) and the two new facilities opening in Long Beach, California, and Biloxi, Mississippi, later this year.

SAH Grants Revisited


Our fears were confirmed when the Senate did not have time during the recent lame duck session to pass the legislative equivalent of H.R. 5360, a bill introduced on May 22 of last year and passed by the full House with bi-partisan support on September 28.

Had a Senate version passed, the legislation would have changed the current visual acuity standard for blindness from 5/200 to a less stringent 20/200 and/or to a standard of 20 degrees or less of field vision. Under the change, additional blinded veterans would have been eligible for Specially Adapted Housing (SAH) assistance grants. Through H.R. 5360, the amount of the grant would have also increased.

As it is, we must unfortunately start the legislative process all over again in both chambers. We will try to locate supporters for a new bill in the 112th session.

Implementing H.R. 3219, Co-Payment Legislation


We reported in our previous Update on landmark legislation that will allow nonservice-connected blinded veterans in the state of New York to retain a small state annuity without having their VA pensions offset by the amount of the annuity. Those potentially affected by the new law should check with their Visual Impairment Service Team (VIST) Coordinators to be certain that its provisions are being implemented for them and that their records are fully updated.

New York is the only state currently affected since it is the only one that provides this annuity to nonservice-connected blinded veterans.

On a similar note, we continue to receive inquiries regarding the legislation that eliminated co-payments for catastrophically disabled, nonservice-connected veterans. These included co-payments for medical care, prescriptions, and, most importantly for our population, admission to inpatient blind rehabilitation services.

Section 504 of S. 1963 is now law, having been signed by President Obama last May. Because this legislation was a top priority for BVA for so long, it is critical that full implementation now occur without any hitches. We have learned of cases in which refunds have been required after veterans have unnecessarily made a co-payment. This is frustrating.

Blinded veterans should meet with their local VIST office and avoid neglecting the annual check-in with the eye clinic to ensure that their blindness is well documented in the clinical records. Some VIST Coordinators have told us that they are still working to get blinded vets into the Category 4 exemption status within the system. We continue to work with senior officials at the VA Central Office to assure that the legislation is fully executed.

Beneficiary Travel Status


Under 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 obtain medical services not available to them at their local facilities. This occurs when needed services are not available at their local facilities. In BVA’s case, it involves travel of a blinded veteran to and from a residential BRC, a long and costly trip for many.

We mentioned in our previous Update that Title 38, Section 111 is being strictly enforced and that BVA members are being denied assistance with airfare when attending a BRC. We will do whatever possible to amend the U.S. Code in order to remove this financial hardship. We expect it to be a tough fight to add any amount at all to the VA budget as long as we find ourselves in the current fiscal climate of eliminations and reductions.

Dan Standage in Capitol Hill Spotlight


On the morning of February 7, I was privileged to attend a roundtable discussion that consisted of several individuals with learning differences related to vision challenges but who were flourishing in higher education or enjoying success in their professional careers.

“Avenues to Access: A Roundtable Conversation with People Who Learn Differently” was hosted in the U.S. Capitol Visitors Center by Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic (RFB&D) in an effort to demonstrate to Hill staffers and the general public that public policy can support students with learning differences, empower their parents, and help educators gain access to critical assistive technology.

Dan Standage, left, with Tom Zampieri following February 7 roundtable sponsored by RFB&D.
Dan Standage, left, with Tom Zampieri following February 7 roundtable sponsored by RFB&D.

One of the participants on the roundtable panel was our own Dan Standage, former Marine and a BVA member of the Southern Arizona Regional Group.

Dan discussed the challenges he faced after experiencing a rare reaction to a vaccine he received while on duty, a reaction that resulted in a loss of most of his vision. During the discussion, Dan recounted his discovery of education and the technological wonders that helped him attain his educational goals and dreams.

“I was quite literally in a dark world,” he said. “Thanks to VA blind rehabilitation and RFB&D, two entities that ran toward me rather than away from me, I finally knew where to turn.”

All of the panel members affirmed the dramatic impact that accessible content and assistive technology had made in their lives.

Dan currently serves as a Coordinator in the Veterans Reintegration and Education Project at the Disability Resource Center at the University of Arizona in Tucson. He was one of three 2010 recipients of the Mary P. Oenslager Scholastic Achievement Award, an honor presented annually by RFB&D.

Operation Peer Support and DCoE Article


The Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury, a sister organization of the Vision Center of Excellence directed by Army Ophthalmologist Colonel Donald Gagliano, publishes a quarterly newsletter entitled DCoE in Action. The most recent issue of the newsletter contained a short but fascinating article that reviewed three different peer support programs that were truly making a difference in the rehabilitation experience of wounded service members.

In a nutshell, the article is very positive about the impact that peer support programs can provide.

Although our own Operation Peer Support program was not listed or reviewed in this report, the results validate many of the theories we set forth as a basis for establishing the program and its component parts. Fortunately, many staff members at Walter Reed Army Medical Center have been most supportive of our visits with individual blinded veterans and their family members which, along with our annual convention peer support activities, are an integral part of the program.

The DCoE in Action article outlines in greater detail the potential of such programs, what kind of materials can be developed, and how their successes and failures can be measured.

Annual Presentation of Legislative Priorities


At press time, we are feverishly preparing the written version of our annual testimony before Congress (see President’s Page). Much of it focuses on preserving the gains we have made over the past four years to ensure that blinded veterans have access to the care and specialized services they need in order to live independently. These benefits and services have most assuredly been earned as a result of the service and sacrifices our veterans have made to the nation.

Our testimony will reflect the vigilance we intend to exercise in the coming months so that our recent milestones, and the months of work leading thereto, will not be in vain.

Please check the Senate VA Committee’s hearing webpage, http://veterans.senate.gov/hearings.cfm to access the written document or call BVA for an email or hard copy. Look for information about the possible live web casting of the event, which will include our five-minute oral statement and questions from Members of the Committee. An online video may well be accessible on the same page.