Legislative Update 

by Tom Zampieri

Testimony Highlights

 

On March 22, BVA National President Sam Huhn presented our legislative priorities before a joint session of the House and Senate Committees on Veterans Affairs.

This event occurred nearly two weeks later this year. Because Congress has scheduled an unusually large number of recesses for 2012, 18 Veterans Service Organizations (VSOs) were called to present their testimony in the space of just one week.

We were actually one of ten organizations presenting on the same morning, among them the American Ex-Prisoners of War, the Fleet Reserve Association, Military Officers Association of America, Gold Star Wives, Jewish War Veterans, Paralyzed Veterans of America, the Air Force Sergeants Association, the National Guard Association of the United States, and AMVETS.

BVA Director of District 5 Dr. George Stocking, left, and District 3 Director Joe Parker await Association's annual presentation of legislative priorities outside Cannon House Office Building Caucus Room.
BVA Director of District 5 Dr. George Stocking, left, and District 3 Director Joe Parker await Association's annual presentation of legislative priorities outside Cannon House Office Building Caucus Room.

There was perhaps more work and preparation involved than usual in getting the testimony ready this year. Sam delivered the oral portion concisely and directly, evoking cheers from the large audience of VSOs and military associations when he touched on the issue of cuts in vital defense eye trauma research funding. As an example, he asked how such reductions could be legislated when there were sufficient funds in the federal budget to finance an $800,000 soccer field overseas.

With Sam as our testimony spokesman, BVA's specific protests about research funding related to the House Appropriations Committee-Defense (HAC-D) Omnibus bill, the vote for which was taken in December. The bill reduced combat eye trauma research funding by 20 percent from last year's $4 million to just $3.2 million.

We had discovered that this vote came after the Office of the Secretary of Defense had requested that military battlefield research for eye and hearing trauma, as part of a Sensory Injury Program, be funded at $14.8 million. In addition, a line item for Army vision research came in at $6.4 million, demonstrating that both the White House and the Department of Defense (DoD) regard such research as a vital priority. These injustices were stated in our written testimony submitted for the record.

Still another point of Sam's remarks centered on a topic that we have driven home to Congress for several years now—adequate staffing of the DoD-VA Vision Center of Excellence (VCE). Finally, there is progress. We are especially encouraged by the steady development of the Defense Veterans Eye Injury Vision Registry (DVEIVR), the mechanism by which clinical records of the eye injured are to be shared between DoD and VA.

For a full text of BVA's written testimony, or to listen to Sam's five-minute oral remarks, visit the House Committee on Veterans Affairs Homepage, www.house.va.gov, and click on Hearings.

On February 14, former NFL offensive tackle and now Representative Jon Runyan (R-NJ-3), right, met with Tom Zampieri, left, and Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan) veteran Tim Fallon. Runyan offered to write a letter to the House Armed Services Committee in support of Department of Defense vision trauma research.
On February 14, former NFL offensive tackle and now Representative Jon Runyan (R-NJ-3), right, met with Tom Zampieri, left, and Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan) veteran Tim Fallon. Runyan offered to write a letter to the House Armed Services Committee in support of Department of Defense vision trauma research.

Capitol Hill Visits And a Stop at VA

 

A precursor to our annual testimony is a series of visits by our BVA Legislative Committee that we always try to schedule in advance. The Committee at present consists of Sam Huhn, Mark Cornell, David VanLoan, and me. These visits usually occur over a two- or three-day period. Because there were so many organizations in town at once, it was more challenging than usual this year to meet with Members of Congress and even staff members.

One of our most notable visits occurred not on Capitol Hill but at VA Central Office. On March 19, VA Director of Blind Rehabilitation Service (BRS) Gale Watson received us in her office, providing us with an opportunity to discuss several concerns and to obtain an update of events within the entire system.

While at VA, we also had an hour with Lynne A. Harbin, Deputy Chief Business Officer of Member Services, and then with David Riley, Director of Veterans Transportation Services. With Mr. Riley we discussed the issue of local transportation barriers for our membership. They assured us that blinded veterans who require transportation, and who have been denied para-transit travel designated for wheelchair veterans, should receive transportation assistance from other types of VA vans, local transit system vehicles, DAV service vans, rideshare services, and other locally contracted services.

We were promised that a memorandum addressing our concerns would be sent to all VA Medical Centers and that the contents, and any responses received, would be provided to BVA.

Progress Report on Beneficiary Travel

 

A recurring subject in our Updates has been that of beneficiary travel eligibility that would help nonservice-connected blinded veterans secure a travel allowance for admission to any one of the 13 Blind Rehabilitation Centers (BRCs) nationwide.

H.R. 3687 and S. 1755 are two critical pieces of legislation that would make such an allowance possible by changing Title 38, Section 111 of the U.S. Code to stipulate that any blind or spinal cord injured disabled veteran may receive travel assistance when accepted for admission to a specialized VA rehabilitation program.

The Senate bill, introduced by Senator Jon Tester (D-MT) and originally co-sponsored by Senator Mark Begich (D-AK), now has three additional Senate co-sponsors. The House companion bill was introduced into the House VA Subcommittee on Health by Representatives Michael Michaud (D-ME-2) and Joe Courtney (D-CT-2) on December 15, 2011. It now has five additional co-sponsors.

Despite the progress made, we felt the need to bring up this topic during our visits to VA and Capitol Hill, as well as during our testimony. The cost estimates associated with this legislation create a huge challenge since we have been asked to affirm that no current beneficiary travel eligibility for outpatient travel would be affected by this legislation. Our hope at the VA meetings was that we could explain the need to change directives regarding local travel so that this would not happen. We believe we were successful in doing so.

Additional Action toward Increased Vision Research

 

Prior to Sam's forceful and forthright comments regarding research funding in his oral presentation to Congress, BVA coordinated the composition and signing of a letter to Bill Young, Chairman of the Subcommittee on Defense of the House Committee on Appropriations, and Ranking Member Norman Dicks. The letter highlighted the importance of increased funding for vision trauma research.

Signatories included BVA, Paralyzed Veterans of America, the National Association for Uniformed Services, Military Order of the Purple Heart, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Jewish War Veterans, and AMVETS.

The National Alliance for Eye Vision Research, the American Optometric Association, and the American Academy of Ophthalmology cooperated with BVA on the effort but drafted their own individual letters. The American Legion also sent a separate letter.

Budget Commentary On FY 2013 and 2014

 

We mentioned in our previous Update that the proposed total VA budget figure for the upcoming two fiscal years is lower than the total recommended by the VSO Independent Budget. It is, however, still several percentage points higher than it was last year.

Some additional comfort can be taken from the recent introduction of legislation by Chairman Miller that protects VA health care from cuts while larger budget battles are waged in both the House and Senate. We remain concerned by the aftereffects of proposed sequestration legislation passed by the House last August that places limits on discretionary spending.

Our concerns are validated when we learn of decisions that affect BVA more than many realize. Because of VA's decision to cut VA employee travel to meetings, there will once again be no VA BRS conference this year in conjunction with our convention. This means there will be no Visual Impairment Service Team (VIST) Coordinators or Blind Rehabilitation Outpatient Specialists (BROS) at our convention unless they make the trip on their own time and at their own expense.

Special Adaptive Housing

 

In addition to our concern for the aforementioned transportation issues, our BVA Legislative Committee expressed similar sentiments during a stop at the office of the VA Director of Adaptive Housing. We discussed the development of a new VA handbook that would include a chapter on construction modifications benefiting blinded veterans.

Although nothing has changed since our last Update regarding the Special Adaptive Housing (SAH) grant legislation, we remain ever hopeful that the current visual acuity standard needed for the $13,860 grant may change from 5/200 to 20/200, or 20 degrees or less of field vision. The 5/200 figure has always seemed too strict since the recognized legal standard for blindness is visual acuity of 20/200.

Legislation is required for such a change in VA's visual acuity standard. S. 1017, introduced last May by Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), has been merged into a larger bill, S. 914. The latter legislation was introduced by Senator Begich and modified in October 2011. Section 306 of the bill is entitled "Expansion of Eligibility for Specially Adapted Housing Assistance for Veterans with Vision Impairment."

We have expressed realistic hope that this bill will pass in this session of Congress before Memorial Day and take effect on October 1. Because the House passed a similar version of the same bill (H.R. 117) in the last Congress, its members have assured their constituents that they will accept the Senate bill without having to pass a new version of the proposed legislation.

Budget Figure Corrected

 

An editing error occurred in the print version of our previous Update. In discussing VA budget issues, the text indicated that VA had earlier in the year requested an overall budget of $140.3 million for 2013, which was $8.1 billion above the FY 2012 budget. That statement, of course, did not make sense. The first figure should have been in billions, not millions.