Legislative Update 

by Tom Zampieri

Legislative Recognition Award Presented to Congressman Walz

 

BVA has honored Representative Tim Walz (D-MN-1) with the organization's 2012 National Legislative Recognition Award for his years of support on health care and benefits legislation affecting blinded veterans.

A brief ceremony, held September 19 in Walz's Washington office, included the presentation of a framed Braille flag. The engraving reads: "In grateful appreciation of your commitment to our nation's blinded veterans and their families."

In office of Representative Tim Walz, left to right, Tom Zampieri,  Representative Walz, Tim Fallon, and Steve Baskis.
In office of Representative Tim Walz, left to right, Tom Zampieri,  Representative Walz, Tim Fallon, and Steve Baskis.

I was accompanied at the ceremony by Operation Iraqi Freedom blinded veteran Steve Baskis of Glen Ellyn, Illinois, and Lieutenant Tim Fallon, who lost most of his sight in 2010 while serving in operations in Afghanistan. Steve had visited with Representative Walz in his office on previous occasions prior to the award ceremony.

"Congressman Walz has been a great champion for many disabled veteran causes and I especially appreciate his recent work on behalf of blinded veterans and their families," said Steve prior to the presentation.

In a press release associated with the award, I explained Congressman Walz's role in making possible a major legislative victory for blinded veterans this past July by sponsoring an amendment that increased vital funding for vision trauma research.

"This effort, coupled by his work to foster more effective cooperation between the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs, will positively impact the lives of our combat eye injured and their families for decades to come," the statement read.

Of note to BVA is Congressman Walz's background as a retired Sergeant Major prior to his election to Congress, making him a respected leader of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs on issues relating to VA health care and benefits for veterans with vision loss.

BVA has been especially appreciative of Congressman Walz's open door policy with respect to the issues that have been important to veterans. In recent years we have benefited greatly from his cooperation, leadership, and proactive approach on so many occasions.

General Uncertainty, Victory For Special Adaptive Housing

 

Congress was in session fewer than nine days during the month of September. If my sole purpose were to update our membership on legislation passed within that time frame, my write-up would end with a single paragraph! I do feel obligated to address some of my previous concerns from early summer, however, and look ahead. I had only my imaginary crystal ball to look to for insight as to how Congress might deal with unfinished business during the lame duck session following the elections on November 6.

One key bill enacted in August is Public Law 112-154, "Honoring America's Veterans and Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act of 2012." Section 306 of the bill provides for a significant change in the standard definition of legal blindness for veterans. This change expands eligibility for the Special Adaptive Housing (SAH) grant to those with 20/200 visual acuity or less, or 20 degrees or less of peripheral field loss.

At press time, VA Central Office was working on revising and updating the SAH Manual M26-12 with a new section specific to blinded veterans. In coordination with VA Blind Rehabilitation Service (BRS), the manual will now include information about housing modifications that will be most conducive to helping blinded veterans live independently.

The process of getting this information into the new manuals may take a little longer than we would like. Nevertheless, any impatience we might experience with that will pale in comparison to the wait we experienced in getting the legislation passed. BVA members who have followed this process are aware of how long and painstaking it was. Now that it has really happened, we can appreciate it as a major accomplishment for blinded veterans and their families who may need to make modifications to their homes in order to accommodate their disability.

Beneficiary Travel and Other Transportation Issues

 

We reported in our Summer issue that beneficiary travel was debated in a Senate VA Committee hearing on June 27. At the time, we hoped that S. 1755 might be included in a mark-up vote in July since the possibility of a September vote was a long shot at best.

Unfortunately, the bill was not included in July and was not in a final committee vote in September. We must start all over again with beneficiary travel in the next Congress. Regardless of what the Senate might have done, there was no House hearing anyway and no real possibility of the companion bill, H.R. 3687, ever getting moved up for a vote on that side of the Capitol.

As with many issues in the past that have taken literally years to resolve, here we have still another one. In late January 2013, we will attempt to move this forward with the goal of improving one more quality of life variable for blinded veterans and their families.

We are also working with the VA Chief of the Veterans Transportation Program regarding barriers to local transportation that affect access to the primary care clinics and other medical center appointments. VA has admitted that changes must be made in the area of transportation if visually impaired veterans are to successfully access health care. BVA will work with internal VA offices and entities outside VA to bring about necessary changes.

Research Funding and Continuing Resolutions

 

The struggle to secure increased defense appropriations for battlefield eye trauma research ended in July. At least so we thought for a short time. The FY 2013 Defense bill actually passed the House Appropriations Committee with the aforementioned amendment sponsored by Congressman Walz that would add another $5 million to the $5 million already approved in Committee.

Pleased with the $10 million for what it represented in terms of our progress, we then watched the Senate Appropriations Committee do what it has done historically‚ÄĒfail to provide the programmatic level funding for defense eye trauma research.

In late August, a decision was made by Congress to pass a six-month Continuing Resolution, or CR as it is known in Washington. A CR provides all federal agencies with only the amount of funding they received during the previous fiscal year.

What this all means for research funding is that for the next six months we are stuck. Not only is our defense vision trauma research program now caught in this trap, but the VA health care budget based on Advance Appropriations through FY 2014 is also on hold. While the VA health care system under last year's Advance Appropriations provides VA with a $1 billion increase, many Veterans Service Organizations (VSOs) know that this is inadequate because of the increasing numbers of enrollments and the higher costs of caring for older veterans. 

On September 13 and 22, the House and Senate, respectively, avoided a government shutdown when FY 2013 began on October 1 by passing the CR recommended in August. President Obama signed the resolution on September 28. This was necessary because final appropriations bills had not been passed for any of the 12 federal departments. That same day, the Office of Management and Budget issued a document filled with guidelines about spending during the term of the CR, which runs until March 28, 2013.

Although my same crystal ball remains foggy, we do know that a fiscal cliff of sorts over taxes, spending, and possible sequestration has confronted Congress upon its return for the lame duck session. The VSOs have been reassured that VA is exempt from any January 2 cuts if sequestration indeed goes into effect. This is a slim piece of good news amid a considerably big mess.

A second bright spot appeared on November 5 when the Military Times ran a story by reporter Patricia Kime regarding the lack of funding for eye injury research. The article, headlined "No Hike in Eye Trauma Research Funds, Despite Promises," essentially recounted the passage of our amendment in the House and the subsequent CR that invalidated the legislation.

More than 97,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have had eye conditions needing surgery or other treatment at VA Medical Centers nationwide, the article stated. In contrast, the same level of funding was allotted for research into bone marrow failure and Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a rare genetic disorder diagnosed in infancy that affects 20,000 male babies in the U.S. each year.

Steve Baskis, a former Army Specialist and now a BVA member, and I were both quoted in the story. We expressed our dismay at the lack of attention to common combat-related injuries that can cause loss of sight.

Aid and Attendance

 

We were contacted last May by the General Counsel of the Senate Committee on Aging. The subject of our discussion surrounded the Counsel's findings that elderly disabled veterans, including blinded veterans, were being targeted by financial companies and lawyers who promised to help them secure long-term care and Aid and Attendance from the VA benefits system. The promise, of course, was based on a fee and a series of false premises.

Aid and Attendance is an enhanced special monthly pension benefit paid in addition to a basic pension. A veteran may not receive an enhanced or a special monthly pension without first establishing eligibility for a basic VA pension. Because an enhanced pension is based on a higher income limit, however, a claimant ineligible for a basic pension due to excessive income may be eligible for enhanced pension benefits.

Aid and Attendance is designed to provide a pension for needy elderly veterans and/or their spouses to assist with essential daily activities that they could otherwise not afford. The additional income increases the quality of life for tens of thousands of veterans.

Unfortunately, problems with the design and administration of the program have led to a growing number of predatory financial planners and attorneys who are using it to sell inappropriate financial instruments to many vulnerable seniors who are also disabled veterans. These "pension poachers," as they have come to be called, convince veterans that they are entitled to a pension for which they actually do not qualify.

Because of loopholes in the VA program that allow for some creative financial accounting, they make the seniors appear less wealthy than they actually are through the aforementioned financial instruments, which come in the form of annuities and trusts that seniors cannot touch for years without huge penalties.

We reported in the Summer issue of the Bulletin about a June 6, 2012 hearing of the Senate Committee on Aging in which family members of elderly veterans had offered testimony. The subject of the testimony involved how a veteran had been tricked into handing over essentially all of his life savings and retirement funds to individuals who promised him VA long-term care benefits.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report that reinforces the Congressional testimony and confirms that its content constitutes more than an isolated incident. The GAO investigation found more than 200 different financial firms or attorneys that were willing to extract fees from disabled senior veterans for these financial tools and that 19 such firms promised to help them "apply and be approved for the benefit" in exchange for the fee.

We strongly urge all blinded veterans and their families to be aware of this fraud and financial risk. Do not respond to those who ask for large payments in order to file claims of any kind. It is far better to ask a VSO benefits expert, such as a BVA Field Service Officer, to help. There is no fee associated with BVA assistance in such a matter.

Complaints regarding suspicions of fraud and abuse can be reported to any member of the Senate. The Senator perhaps most concerned about this issue is Senator Richard Burr (R-NC), Ranking Member on the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs. Senator Burr himself testified at the June hearing. 
Still another resource and avenue for complaints is the Office of Servicemember Affairs (OSA) at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). OSA is currently expanding its outreach to veterans through social networks.

CFPB is the federal agency responsible for protecting American consumers from financial fraud; regulating financial products such as mortgages, credit cards and credit reports; and supervising banks, credit unions, and other financial institutions. The central mission of CFPB is to make consumer financial products, services, and markets work for all Americans. It is the CFPB and not VA that has jurisdiction in cases of financial fraud.

OSA serves specifically to protect servicemembers, military families, and veterans from financial harm while also working to make the military community better educated consumers.

In the past few months, OSA has worked to limit the reach of predatory for-profit colleges that target servicemembers and veterans for their Post 9/11 GI Bill benefits. It has also made headway in reducing the prevalence of predatory payday lenders that market to military families; worked with VA to protect senior military veterans and retirees from unfair, abusive, and deceptive scams that target their hard-earned benefits; and worked to help make federal mortgage refinance and short sale programs more military-friendly. 

OSA has responded to more than 2,800 military consumer complaints and helped recoup more than $334,000 for servicemembers, veterans, and military families.

For more information, visit http://www.consumerfinance.gov/servicemembers. A monthly blog devoted to the latest in military consumer financial news, tips, and general information is now hosted on the main CFPB website. The blog covers wide ranging topics such as how to pick a military-friendly bank or credit union, military consumer legal protections, and warnings about the latest financial scams targeting the military and veteran community. It is also posted on Facebook and Twitter for easy sharing.

Internet Accessibility on VHA and VBA Sites

 

BVA has been more active than usual this past summer and fall in petitioning VA to become more compliant with Section 508 of the Americans with Disabilities Act so that blinded veterans may more easily access relevant information on all Veterans Health Administration and Veterans Benefits Administration web pages.

For years, we have submitted resolutions regarding this important issue. Although our resolutions have not met with much success, we hope to make the issue a higher priority as VA delivery of communications and other services through Internet and Intranet frameworks becomes more critical. Our efforts have extended to Congressional committees, senior VA leadership, the VA Office of 508 Compliance, and industry Information Technology (IT) systems contractors that employ specialists in the area of accessibility.

For the first time ever, VA has identified 12 major Internet sites that require program patches in order to allow JAWS and Sharepoint accessibility. VA's Chief of Information Technology told Congress that the funding for VA IT in the area of Section 508 is $9.7 million for FY 2013, up some $3.9 million from what it was in FY 2012.

VA has also indicated that new Internet and Intranet applications designed by contractors must meet accessibility standards and will be tested by VA's Office of 508 Compliance program staff. Short-term overlay technology accessibility shields will be used for short-term fixes, and long-term application fixes for source codes will be identified and implemented. BVA has also requested that VA consider employing blinded veterans in this effort, especially in the area of user testing of the changes.

Veterans COLA

 

 

A bill to provide a Cost-of-Living Adjustment (COLA) of 1.7 percent for veterans passed the Senate on November 13. The House had already passed this legislation in early September before it was held up in the Senate prior to the recess for election season.

The veterans COLA affects several important benefits, including veterans' disability compensation and dependency and indemnity compensation for surviving spouses and children. Projections indicate that more than $3.9 million veterans and survivors will receive compensation benefits in FY 2013.

The COLA is designed to offset inflation and other factors that lead to the rising cost of living over time. The COLA rate will match the annual increase provided to Social Security recipients and is based on the Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Price Index.