Legislative Update 

by Tom Zampieri

VA Health Care Budget

 

The House of Representatives of the 113th Congress passed the FY 2014 Military Construction and Veterans Affairs (MILCON/VA) Appropriations bill on June 4. The approval by the Appropriations Committee took place on May 15. As expected, H.R. 2216 contained an increased level of funding for VA.

The legislation passed by a vote of 412-4. As we’ve mentioned in the recent past, VA health care services, education funds, and disability benefits are all exempt from mandatory spending cuts that kicked in March 1 with the onset of sequestration. This is due to the Advance Appropriations legislation passed in 2009.

Under the House bill, funding for the Veterans Health Administration increased by $1.9 billion to a total of $54.6 billion. Advance Appropriations also provides for $59.1 billion for FY 2015.

At press time, a Senate Committee had done a mark-up of a companion bill. Because there has been no press release as of yet, we are uncertain as to what was included in the 250 pages of material. The full Appropriations Committee was scheduled to do a mark-up after July 4 and will hopefully release statements at that time.

Very few differences are expected between the House and Senate on VA appropriations. Unlike other issues before the two bodies, there is no big fight planned when it comes to an increased VA budget.

Research Funding

 

We are able to report success in our second major challenge in two years to achieve an increase in Defense appropriations for battlefield vision trauma research. Another $10 million was included in the FY 2014 House Defense Appropriations bill enacted in late May.

Our partnerships with the National Alliance for Eye and Vision Research and the American Academy of Ophthalmology are instrumental in bringing about these successes. We meet and collaborate with representatives of both organizations, which include joint visits to House and Senate offices and attendance together at Committee hearings.

Because of our strong support from many key members on the Senate side, we expect the vote there to be for the same level of funding passed by the House. More members of both bodies are recognizing the prevalence and significance of eye trauma and Traumatic Brain Injury vision impairments as a result of Improvised Explosive Devices and other blasts. They appear to be gaining a greater awareness of the importance of the translational battlefield vision research that can treat such injuries.

Beneficiary Travel

 

Our focus and priorities now center on beneficiary travel legislation, which includes H.R. 1284 on the House side of Capitol Hill and S. 633 on the Senate side. The Senate VA Committee included discussion and testimony regarding S. 633 in a hearing held May 9. BVA’s Assistant Director of Government Relations Michael O’Rourke provided testimony in a similar hearing in the House VA Subcommittee on Health on May 22.

The two bills, introduced by Representative Julia Brownley (D-CA-26) in the House and Senator John Tester (D-MT) in the Senate, would authorize eligibility for nonservice-connected blind or spinal cord injured veterans to receive travel assistance to a specialized VA rehabilitation center for either full admission or for use of “hoptel” beds during rehabilitation training.

Assistant Director of Government Relations Michael O’Rourke testified on behalf of beneficiary travel legislation.
Assistant Director of Government Relations Michael O’Rourke testified on behalf of beneficiary travel legislation.
 
BVA was supported by other Veterans Service Organizations who testified in favor of the bills in both of the aforementioned hearings. Our cause is always helped when BVA members inform their Members of Congress that enacting legislation such as H.R. 1284 and S. 633 is of paramount importance.

We must try to move this important issue forward this year. At present, we have just four co-sponsors of the House bill. We were off to a good start on the Senate side with five quick Democratic co-sponsors but are still stuck at that same number.

We were informed during the week of July 15-19 that S. 633 could be included in legislation scheduled for a mark-up vote by the Senate VA Committee the following week. Unfortunately, the Committee considered other veterans benefits and health care bills but not S. 633.

This was a huge disappointment, at least for the moment. It demonstrates the tremendous importance of our efforts to educate Members of Congress about pending legislation that is critical to blinded veterans.

ADA 508 Compliance

 

We also continue to discuss with Members of Congress the need to improve accessibility to VA Internet websites under Section 508 of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Our specific hope is that the FY 2014 VA Information Technology budget will include a line item for sufficient staffing. We were told unofficially that $9 million had been budgeted for program development in an effort to meet Section 508 standards.

Our fear the past couple of months is that 508 compliance will certainly not be included as a line item. There was, in fact, no line item in the FY 2014 budget when it was released. If the budgeted funds for 508 compliance become part of the very sizeable technology operational budget, they might well get shifted to meet other demands. After nine months of extensive testing and program analysis under contract, we now want VA to start fixing the systems that were not accessible. We are pushing Congress to ask VA how much funding will be provided and a timeline to fix the problems.

VCE Update

 

Our last Update reported on a replacement for Colonel Donald Gagliano as Director of the joint DoD/VA Vision Center of Excellence. Biographical information was even provided. Ironically, a change in that appointment was made by the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs a short time after our last Bulletin went to print.

The Navy Surgeon General was instructed to restart the search and secure additional candidates. At press time, he was still waiting to do so. There is currently no word regarding the exact time frame for the search and the interview process.

In the interim, VCE Deputy Director Dr. Mary Lawrence has been serving as the Acting Director. We expect that the interim period will be the summer months.

We look forward to our BVA convention in August for many reasons, one of which will be, as in past years, the presence of some 45 researchers and VCE staff who will be meeting simultaneously and in conjunction with our BVA events.