Legislative Update 

by Tom Zampieri

Annual Congressional Testimony

 

The Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs confirmed on January 17 that the annual presentation of BVA's legislative priorities would occur on February 28. Accordingly, BVA National President Sam Huhn was one of eight Veterans Service Organization (VSO) representatives to sit side-by-side at the long witness table and speak one after another.

Sam's five-minute oral presentation was based on a written document that we submitted for the Congressional Record. Although the hearing was a joint session of the House and Senate Committees, the Senate oversaw the scheduling and other logistics of the event.

House Committee on Veterans Affairs Chairman Jeff Miller (R-FL-1), right, exchanges greetings with Sam Huhn prior to February 28 joint Congressional hearing.
House Committee on Veterans Affairs Chairman Jeff Miller (R-FL-1), right, exchanges greetings with Sam Huhn prior to February 28 joint Congressional hearing.

The new 113th Congress delayed so long in scheduling the VSO hearings this year that many organizations such as BVA were forced to plan their mid-winter legislative and Board meetings before they knew for sure when their testimony would be. This was necessary in order to book hotel rooms and keep airfare costs to a minimum.

Consequently, audiences were smaller this year since the testimony schedule did not necessarily coincide with planned trips to the Nation's Capital. In BVA's case, the Board missed the testimony by just one week this year and the Legislative Committee visited Capitol Hill the week prior to the hearing.
 
Despite this unfortunate circumstance, through the miracle of modern technology the video of Sam's oral testimony may be viewed online and the written testimony read in full. Visit http://veterans.senate.gov.hearings.cfm to locate the BVA testimony and then select either of the two formats.

Sam had nearly completed his oral remarks when he was told that he had approximately 20 seconds left. Not wishing to let any of his time go to waste, he mentioned BVA's position on guide dogs—that it should not be necessary for the federal government to pick up a $35,000 tab for a dog that is potentially not trained adequately for a blinded veteran needing one, especially when dogs have been available to them for decades through private foundations.

The casual remark at the end of his testimony spurred interest with a Military Times reporter at the hearing. He stopped me on the way out and proceeded to talk with me about the issue for the next 20 minutes or so. The next week the publication ran a front-page story based on that portion of our written testimony and my responses to his question!

Pending Issues Left For New Congress

 

The new 113th Congress was sworn into office on January 4. Although many individual Members went immediately to work early in the New Year, much of the first month was spent in recess while they were being appointed to the various committees and subcommittees.

Based on history and statistics from the past, the 112th Congress was one of the least productive on record, at least since 1946 when such records began to be kept. The results of the last Congress are reflected in the low approval ratings with which most of us are familiar. Only 249 bills were enacted, 50 of which were for the naming of post offices or other federal buildings.

These figures can be compared with an average two-year session, which normally passes about 800 pieces of legislation that are subsequently sent for the President's signature. It appears also that Congress has merely "kicked the can" down the road a bit on a number of leftover issues. The 113th Congress has been left to both deliberate and make decisions regarding them.

Special Adaptive Housing And Beneficiary Travel

 

We continue to follow progress on the implementation of Public Law 112-154, "Honoring America's Veterans and Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act of 2012." Signed into law on August 6 of last year, the legislation changed the criteria by which blinded veterans may qualify for assistance in adapting their housing facilities to better accommodate their blindness.

The standard definition for legal blindness for Special Adaptive Housing purposes is now 20/200, or 20 degree or less of peripheral field loss, instead of the more stringent 5/200. As a result, more blinded veterans are now eligible for this FY 2013 grant of $12,992. The amount will be adjusted annually based on inflation.

Ed Eckroft and I met with five senior VA officials on January 14 regarding the manner in which VA will enforce the law. We learned that the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) has notified all of the VA Regional Offices that the law is in effect and that they must accept applications from veterans who meet the new standards.

If any veteran's claim is rejected because a local office is using the old standard of 5/200, please notify a BVA Field Service Officer or volunteer. We are also encouraging VBA to complete its new adaptive housing manual by later this summer.

Manual M26-12 should explain the new legislation and dozens of other changes, including lists of common home construction adaptations for the blind and visually impaired.

Our House and Senate Beneficiary Travel bills were not included in any larger bills last fall. Therefore, we have started over again with this legislation in the new 113th Congress. On March 21, Senator Jon Tester (D-MT) introduced S. 633 and Representative Julia Brownley (D-CA-26) introduced H.R. 1284. As with many issues for which we have advocated on behalf of our membership in the past, this one may well require many attempts and several years.

We continue to reach out to officials of the Veterans Transportation Program regarding the barriers some veterans encounter in trying to use local VA transportation services to access primary care or other medical center appointments. VA has admitted that transportation improvements must be made so that blind and visually impaired veterans can access health care services to their full potential. Helping blinded veterans receive the maximum service for which they are eligible is, of course, our most important objective this spring.

Debt Ceiling Issues and Delayed Sequestration

 

Congress passed H.R. 8, the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012, at 11:01 p.m. on December 31, thus avoiding the much discussed and feared "Fiscal Cliff." That was the good news. The more pessimistic side of it all is that the legislation only further delayed sequestration by two more months.

The magic date was to be March 27, the same on which the Fiscal Year (FY) 2013 Continuing Resolution (CR) was to expire. This year's CR funded all 12 federal government departments at the FY 2012 levels.

Add in the total debt ceiling debate, which was delayed 90 days when the country would run out of money to pay its bills. Then include into the mix talk of a potential partial government shutdown on March 28. In light of these factors and larger discussions about tax revenue and deficit reduction, the result was total uncertainty about final FY 2013 appropriations until an almost last-minute Senate bill passed on March 20 that will fund the federal government through the end of the fiscal year on September 30.

The Obama administration also announced a delay in issuing its proposed FY 2014 budget until March. Usually each administration sends its budget to Congress in early February. Due to the uncertainty about the FY 2013 budget and no advance appropriations for FY 2014, most everything is being pushed back further than normal. Without sounding too negative, we are concerned that this could be a sign of more difficulties ahead.

VA Committee Updates and Other Leadership Changes

 

Former Senate VA Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-WA) has accepted the chairmanship of the Senate Budget Committee. Her replacement to chair the VA Committee is Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT). Senator Richard Burr (R-NC) remains the Committee's Ranking Member.

On the House side, Representative Jeff Miller (R-FL-1) will continue as the House Committee Chairman while Representative Mike Michaud (D-ME-2) replaces longtime Congressman Bob Filner as the Ranking Member. Nine freshmen Members have been appointed to the House Committee. This represents a huge turnover in comparison with the past. We have much work ahead of us in the area of educating these new Members about BVA concerns.

With the passing of Senator Daniel Inouye (D-HI), one of the longest serving Members of the Senate, the new Chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee is Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD). She is the first woman ever to hold the position.

Senator Mikulski has had extensive experience with appropriations that affect both the National Institutes of Health (NIH) as well as the Department of Defense (DoD). BVA has frequently visited with her staff regarding issues of concern.

Accompanying all of these changes were several Committee staff changes, including Staff Director Kim Lipksy. We will miss Kim's advocacy on the Committee. She consistently went to bat for blinded veterans. In all, she worked on the VA committee for 17 years. She has promised that she will watch out for disabled senior veterans and continue to help us, perhaps in ways different from the past, in her new role on the Senate Aging Committee.

Issues of Accessibility

 

In December, BVA invited representatives of several organizations of and for the blind to our national headquarters for a briefing by Pat Sheehan, VA's Director of Compliance and Section 508 Coordinator in the Office of Enterprise Development.

Our purpose in holding this meeting was to learn more about VA's latest efforts to comply with Section 508 of the Americans with Disabilities Act as it relates to VA webpages and online documents.

Mr. Sheehan told us that the work is progressing. VA Intranet and Internet sites, he said, are undergoing improvements and accessibility problem areas are being both identified and fixed. He also said that overlay technology accessibility shields will be used in short-term fixes and that source codes will be identified and implemented for long-term applications fixes.

BVA has set as a high priority the improvement of electronic accessibility to all VHA and VBA programs. We are closely monitoring VA's transformation in the area of service delivery to an Internet and Intranet framework. It was good to hear that the budget for Section 508 compliance has recently tripled and that there are now 16 full-time staff members.

Now more than three months later, we have learned that Roger Baker, VA's Chief Information Technology Officer, left the Department at the end of March. Because much of the recent progress has been driven by Mr. Baker's mandates to various Information Technology departments to fix these access problems, we are not certain that this momentum will continue without him.

Nevertheless, VA has responded that new Internet and Intranet programs designed by contractors must indeed meet accessibility standards and will be tested for compliance by VA Office 508 Program staff.

A Fond but Sad Farewell

 

As difficult as it is to do so, we must report that DoD-VA Vision Center of Excellence (VCE) Director Colonel Donald Gagliano, M.D., is being retired from the Army on March 31 after 34 years of active duty.

Colonel Gagliano has attended all of our national conventions since 2009 in Portland. He was our Father Carroll Luncheon speaker there. Since then, many of our members have become acquainted with him. He frequently speaks openly of his cooperative relationship with and respect for BVA.

Colonel Donald A. Gagliano at BVA 66th National Convention in Las Vegas. Photo courtesy of Liesl Marelli.
Colonel Donald A. Gagliano at BVA 66th National Convention in Las Vegas. Photo courtesy of Liesl Marelli.

Fortunately for BVA also, Colonel Gagliano has been complimentary of our strong advocacy efforts to improve VA and DoD health care on behalf of the eye injured while speaking before professional medical organizations, vision researchers, and military leaders.

Colonel Gagliano hoped to request another two-year active duty Army extension to be able to continue the management of VCE operations in this very critical stage in development. However, it appears that this unfortunate decision is final.

In my nearly 30 years of having worked in health care with hundreds of physicians, and here at BVA in government relations policy and advocacy, never have I associated with an individual of such outstanding skills, dedication, and leadership.

Considering the little appreciated fact that he worked tirelessly by himself with just one Deputy Director from November 2008 until early 2010, it is nothing short of amazing what Colonel Gagliano has accomplished. He put together an organization of 16 full-time staff while implementing a strategic plan, facilitating the coordination of national and international vision trauma research programs, and developing the first-ever joint interoperable DoD and VA Eye Vision Injury Registry.

This initiative of which Colonel Gagliano played such a major role will eventually result in records on 118,150 veterans who sustained mild, moderate, or severe eye injuries in the first decade of the 21st century.