Legislative Update

by Tom Zampieri

Russian Journalist Visits Headquarters

 

Every three years, extending back to his days as Director of Government Relations, Tom Miller has represented BVA at meetings of the International Congress of the War Blind. Invariably, Tom has returned each time with a new testimonial about the blessings, relative to other countries, of being an American veteran and how fortunate we are to have a Department of Veterans Affairs.

The concept came to life for us once again as Tom, Michael O' Rourke, and I met on February 3 with Russian journalist Nadezhda Molodtsova. The purpose of Ms. Molodtsova's visit was to gather information for a series of articles she will write regarding the services and support that are available to veterans in the United States.Ms. Molodtsova is a correspondent for the Privolzhskaya Gazeta, which is published in the Astrakhan Oblast (the term oblast is equivalent to an American state or a Canadian province). We were told that her region has many veterans and that the editor of the Gazeta wished to inform readers of the manner in which veterans, including disabled veterans, are cared for in the United States.

Tom Miller, Nadezhda Molodtsova, Government Relations Assistant Director Michael O’Rourke, and Tom Zampieri.
Tom Miller, Nadezhda Molodtsova, Government Relations Assistant Director Michael O’Rourke, and Tom Zampieri.

Our interpreter was not present but translated the discussion through speaker phone. Although we were the interviewees, Ms. Molodtsova revealed the fact that blinded veterans in Russia could only dream of the services that would be available to them if they lived here.

Challenges, Gridlock Visible on Horizon

 

Congress was out of session for approximately a month after our last Bulletin Update was published and distributed, leaving us with fewer details than usual to share in this issue. There is still no great shortage of interesting turns of events and drama during this session of Congress and in an election year.

Upon returning from the holidays, we began preparing for our annual Congressional testimony. Our oral statement this year will be presented by our new BVA National President, Sam Huhn, on March 22. The portion of the Committee hearing at which we will appear is referred to officially as the presentation of BVA's legislative priories for the upcoming fiscal year. He will address a joint session of the House and Senate Veterans Affairs Committees.

It appears once again that we will be faced with a challenging session of Congress characterized by even less agreement on issues than occurred last year. Because these problems are never-ending, we expect gridlock on some budgets and appropriations. A major cause of this gridlock is that many of the line items in the federal budgets for Fiscal Year (FY) 2013 will not be decided until the end of FY 2012, which in this case is September 30.

Beneficiary Travel Legislation

 

A positive push forward occurred at the start of the New Year when Congress looked more closely at enacting legislation that would make additional nonservice-connected blinded veterans eligible for beneficiary travel. The benefit would cover transportation costs to any of the 13 Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Blind Rehabilitation centers (BRCs). Veterans in this category were previously required to pay their own travel expenses for admission to a BRC.

BVA is working on both a House and a Senate version of a bill. H.R. 3687 was introduced in the VA Subcommittee on Health by Representatives Michael Michaud (D-ME-2) and Joe Courtney (D-CT-2) on December 15, 2011. It now has four additional co-sponsors. S. 1755 was introduced in the Senate by Senator Jon Tester (D-MT) and co-sponsored by Senator Mark Begich (D-AK).

The proposed legislation specifies that Section 111 of Title 38 of the U.S. Code be changed to read that "any blind or spinal cord-injured disabled veteran may receive travel benefits when accepted for admission to a specialized VA rehabilitation program." As always, the confusion that can arise in formulating cost estimates for this travel certainly creates challenges. We must be clear that no current outpatient travel reimbursements would be changed by passage of the bill.

Enacting beneficiary travel legislation would greatly help many of our low-income disabled veterans secure access to blind or spinal cord-injury rehabilitation centers. The urgency of the legislation will make it a key talking point in Sam's testimony.

Revisiting Funding for Eye Trauma Research

 

Not new either is BVA's displeasure with House and Senate Defense Appropriations Committee action. Through a large Omnibus bill that funded nine federal agencies, the House Committee voted in December to reduce defense combat eye trauma research funding by 20 percent from last year's $4 million to $3.2 million. The Senate Committee followed suit.

BVA is especially disappointed in this reduction in view of last year's request from the Office of the Secretary of Defense that military battlefield research be funded at higher levels. In addition to ignoring this request, the Committees chose to include $10 million for a cultural museum in Guam and $20 million for a new weapons research program to test crop duster planes with guided weapons systems that was not even requested by the Secretary of the Air Force.

Something has gone terribly wrong when such misguided actions can occur. Although Senator John McCain (R-AZ) agrees with us and on December 15 voiced his strong objection to these priorities on the Senate floor, nothing was changed in the reduction for vision research. Accordingly, we are again requesting added funding for defense vision eye trauma research for FY 2013 at $10 million.

The silver lining in this cloud is that there is strength in numbers. We continue to coordinate our efforts with those of the National Alliance for Eye Vision Research, the American Optometric Association, and the American Academy of Ophthalmology. We also empirical data on our side that reveals that 29 percent of all medically evacuated wounded service members from Iraq and Afghanistan have sustained head and neck wounds that may affect vision. Approximately 4,970 have had severe blast eye globe injuries, 165 of which have already completed training at a VA BRC.

More VCE Milestones

 

Staffing for the joint Department of Defense (DoD)-VA Vision Center of Excellence has continued to progress and is now at 15 full-time employees, five of which represent VA. Deputy Director Mary Lawrence, M.D., is one of the five from VA.

There is also recent additional progress on implementation of the Defense Veterans Eye Injury Vision Registry, responsible for the sharing of clinical records of the eye injured between DoD and VA.

After numerous delays and bureaucratic snags, it appears that VCE staff will move into and open their new administrative headquarters office at the new Walter Reed National Military Medical Center-Bethesda sometime in May. Because it has been so long in coming, this event will be a milestone that many believed, and justifiably so, would never happen.

VA Budget Issues

 

We plan to keep a close watch on the FY 2013 and 2014 VA budgets that were released from the White House on February 15. VA is requesting an overall budget of $140.3 billion, $8.1 billion above the FY 2012 budget.

The 2013 figure includes $64 billion in discretionary funds, most of which has been designated for medical care. This is a 4.5 percent increase over the 2012 budget figure. Some $76 billion is mandatory funding, the majority of which will be used for disability compensation and veterans pensions. This figure represents a 16.2 percent increase in benefits funding.

The VA budget document is a complex one consisting of many sections. Of most interest to BVA and its members, however, is the section providing the figure for VA Blind Rehabilitation Service (BRS). This figure was $126 million in the FY 2012 budget but increases to $134 million in FY 2013. Advance appropriations for FY 2014 projects the figure to be $143 million.

Each of these three numbers is lower than what the Veterans Service Organization (VSO) Independent Budget recommended. Because of this and other political/economic variables, we grow more concerned that FY 2013 and 2014 appropriations are in danger of becoming a target for reduction. Already in the rumor mill is talk of cutting funding for VA information technology systems, research, and VA construction projects.

Because larger budget fights will undoubtedly continue into the spring, nothing is certain at this point. We know and understand from BVA's perspective that great work and sacrifice for far too long have been expended in securing funding for VA programs for blinded veterans. Therefore, we simply cannot give up. We must ensure that VA BRS continues to improve its services to blinded veterans through adequate funding levels.

Unfortunately, we have already seen one major casualty, which is that VA has been forced to cut almost all employee travel for meetings. The bad news was delivered to BVA in early December when we were notified that there would once again this year be no VA BRS conference to run simultaneously with the BVA national convention. We are disappointed by this turn of events as we see the end of a long tradition of sharing convention space, building our relationships with individual VA professionals, and exchanging ideas and suggestions regarding how to work together more effectively.

Progress Slow but Sure on Special Adaptive Housing

 

We have not given up on helping our blinded veterans obtain Special Adaptive Housing (SAH) grants. Right now the current visual acuity standard to be eligible for this grant stands at 5/200. This figure has always seemed too strict to BVA since the recognized legal standard for blindness is visual acuity of 20/200, or 20 degrees or less of field vision. The grant is for $13,860.

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 Mark Begich (D-AK) 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 hope this bill will pass before Memorial Day and take effect on October 1 so that service-connected blinded veterans who have not been eligible for a Special Adaptive Housing grant in the past will become eligible now.

Because the House passed a similar version of the same bill 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 H.R. 117.

Veterans and Beneficiaries Receive 2012 COLA

 

Beginning January 1, veterans, their families, and survivors receiving benefits from VA saw a 3.6 percent increase in their compensation and pension benefits.

The new compensation rates will range from $127 monthly for a disability rated at 10 percent to $2,769 monthly for one rated at 100 percent. The Cost of Living Adjustments, or COLAs, also apply to disability and death pension recipients, survivors receiving Dependency and Indemnity Compensation, disabled veterans receiving automobile and clothing allowances, and other benefits.

According to Allison A. Hickey, VA Under Secretary for Benefits, veterans receiving VA disability and pension payments may now check their new 2012 COLA increase online by signing up for eBenefits at https://www.ebenefits.va.gov. DoD and VA jointly developed the eBenefits portal as a single secure point of access for online benefit information and tools to perform multiple self-service functions such as checking monthly benefit rates, filing a claim, or looking up the status of an action.