Legislative Update 

by Glenn Minney

House Subcommittee Conducts BVA Hearing

 

On May 13, the VA Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations scheduled a hearing for May 29 with the specific purpose of listening to testimony on issues of critical importance to BVA and individual blinded veterans.

Glenn Minney, right, outlines hearing procedures to Terry Kebbel at witness table prior to testimony before House VA Subcommittee May 29.
Glenn Minney, right, outlines hearing procedures to Terry Kebbel at witness table prior to testimony before House VA Subcommittee May 29.

The hearing occurred as scheduled with veterans Terry Kebbel of the Rio Grande Regional Group, Travis Fugate of the Central California Regional Group, and me, Glenn Minney, as panelists. We addressed the issues of beneficiary travel, Section 508 compliance, and the slow implementation of the Vision Center of Excellence Eye Trauma Registry on the VA side of the joint initiative.

A second panel of VA officials, Dr. Maureen McCarthy, M.D., Deputy Chief of Patient Care Services for the Veterans Health Administration (VHA), and Lorraine Landfried, Deputy Chief Information Officer for Product Development in the Office of Information Technology, followed the BVA panel and submitted a written statement for the Congressional Record. They were accompanied by Dr. Mary Lawrence, M.D., Deputy Director of the Vision Center of Excellence, and Pat Sheehan, Director of VA’s 508 Compliance Office.

Beneficiary Travel At the Forefront

 

The Blinded Veterans Association supports H.R. 1284 and S. 633, two proposed bills that provide for a beneficiary travel program that would many more of our blinded veterans across the country.

At present, nonservice-connected veterans are currently ineligible for travel benefits under Title 38 of U.S.C. Section 111. If they became eligible, the cost of their travel to one of the 13 Blind Rehabilitation Centers (BRCs) would be covered. The same would be true for veterans traveling to one of the 29 Spinal Cord Injury locations.

Veterans who must currently shoulder this financial hardship, which often involves air travel, are discouraged by these costs and are less likely to be interested in attending a VA BRC.

The average age of trainees at the blind centers is 67, an age at which there is a high prevalence of degenerative eye diseases that are classified as non-service connected and thereby not covered by current beneficiary travel. Such veterans are often living on Social Security income of $1,450 per month and are likely unable to pay for their own airfare or other public transportation to a BRC.

There are those who would argue that this legislation is costly. BVA would contend, however, that a failure to help veterans become more independent is, in the long run, a great deal more costly to society.

If accessible rehabilitation services are not sufficient to allow disabled veterans to continue to live independently at home, the alternative high cost of institutional care in nursing homes will be incurred. According to a MetLife 2014 survey, the average private room charge for nursing home care was $212 daily, ($77,380 annually). For a semi-private room it was $191 daily ($69,715 annually). Even assisted living center charges of $3,031 per month ($36,372 annually) rose another 2 percent in 2013.

These costs, of course, are much greater than the costs of beneficiary travel to blind and spinal cord injured veterans. 

On May 21 of last year, VHA Principal Deputy Under Secretary for Health Dr. Robert A. Jesse stated the following:

“VA supports the intent of broadening beneficiary travel eligibility for veterans who could most benefit from the VA Special Disabilities Program, contingent on provision of funding, but believes this legislation could be improved by changing its scope. VA does support the idea of travel eligibility to a limited group of ‘Catastrophically Disabled’ veterans (including veterans who are blind or have spinal cord injuries and amputees) and those with special needs who may not be otherwise eligible for VA travel benefits. VA welcomes the opportunity to work with the Committee to craft appropriate language as well as ensure that resources are available to support any travel eligibility increase that might impact upon provisions of VA health care.”

H.R. 1284 was sponsored by Representative Julia Brownley (D-CA-26), and S. 633 by Senator Jon Tester (D-MT). At press time, the House bill had ten co-sponsors and the Senate bill had seven. The House bill has been in the Subcommittee on Health since May 21, 2013 while the Senate bill has been in Committee since May 9 of last year.

During a recent meeting I had with Congressman Dan J. Benishek M.D. (R-MI-1), chairman of the Subcommittee on Health, the Congressman stated that he would not allow the bill to be marked up for vote until funding was appropriated. The pay-go rule entails the offset responsibility of Congress and the Government Accountability Office to fund these bills. Measures can be taken to appropriate this funding through offsets in Congress. It should not be difficult to do this given that this bill is $3 million, a far cry from the $860 million VA received for its 2015 annual travel budget.

In 2012, H.R. 3687 and S. 1755 were mirror bills for beneficiary travel that did not make it to the floor for mark-up and eventually died in Committee. Now, this year, the same bills were re-introduced under H.R. 1284 and S. 633. For every year that beneficiary travel goes unfunded when the proposed legislation does not make it to the House and Senate floors for mark-up, the greater the number of blinded veterans there will be who must live without needed rehabilitation services.

H.R. 1284 and S. 633: Real Life Impact

 

During a recent visit to a BRC, a member of our Board of Directors sat with an 87-year-old blinded veteran whom we will call Joe. The latter indicated that he had been blind for several decades and had relied on his wife to assist him with the tasks of daily living: cleaning, laundry, shopping, cooking, and mobility.

Unfortunately, Joe’s wife passed away unexpectedly not long ago. Joe had made up his mind and was intent on the fact that he was going to live in a nursing home—at least until his Visual Impairment Service Team (VIST) Coordinator convinced him to attend a VA BRC.

Joe successfully completed his residential BRC training. He told the Board member that it was the greatest thing he had ever done and that he had obtained the necessary skills and mobility training to stay in the home in which he and his wife had lived for so many years together. There was really no need for Joe to leave his home and move into a VA nursing home after all.

This anecdote captivates the importance and implications of passing beneficiary travel legislation.

Because a BRC stay lasting a few weeks is inexpensive when compared to nursing home care or other types of long-term care, this legislation will actually save money. The implications become even greater when the legislation’s priceless gift of independent living for veterans with sight loss is seriously considered.

Section 508 Compliance

 

Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 was enacted to eliminate barriers in information technology, open new opportunities for people with disabilities, and encourage development of technologies that will help achieve these goals.

The law applies to all federal agencies when they develop, procure, maintain, or use electronic and information technology. Under the law, agencies must provide disabled employees and members of the public access to information that is comparable to access available to others.

An audit of VA’s Internet and Intranet frameworks, Hyper Markup Language Code (HTML), occurred on July 12, 2012. This inspection determined that most of the content and information on the VA Internet and Intranet webpages were not 508 compliant. VA’s Assistant Secretary for Information and Technology issued a report of the results of this audit, stating that VA must do better for the veterans, the public, and their employees in order to meet the requirements of the law. 

Despite their awareness of the noncompliance, VA officials continue to upload new webpages on their Internet and Intranet systems that have many of the same problems. The following is a list of the 12 websites and webpages most commonly used by the veteran population and the VA staff. A recent study determined that these sites are not 508 compliant. They are:
During a House Veterans Affairs Committee budget hearing on April 14 of this year, Representative Corrine Brown (D-FL-5) asked why there was a line item for Section 508 compliance in the Fiscal Year (FY) 2013 budget when there was no such line item in the FY 2014 budget. VA responded that the Section 508 Program Office and the Health 508 Office were combined, and that a line item budget was submitted in the FY 2014 budget for all 508 efforts in a centralized Office of Information & Technology budget. This new budget was to support 11 new full-time positions.

The FY 2014 President’s budget has $37.26 million identified for “Product Tools Management Competency.” This specific line item includes funding for Product Development IT’s “Product Assessment Competency Division,” of which $11.87 million is for VA’s 508 program. This funding will cover:
  • Contracted resources to support the development and execution of Section 508-related training for developers, testers, and non-technical staff.
  • Testing support services to 1) bring new software into compliance with Section 508 requirements, and (2) audit existing Section 508-compliant software to ensure that it remains compliant.
  • Maintenance of hardware and software that is used to test IT systems for Section 508 compliance.
  • Development of an enterprise-wide approach to bring all VA Share Point repositories into compliance with Section 508 requirements.
This new initiative put forth by VA to become 508 compliant is intended to make all hardware and software more accessible. While BVA applauds these efforts, we must still ask: 1) how long the process will take, and 2) why it has taken VA 41 years to consider Section 508 compliance.

If VA would do research on all new programs prior to putting them in service to determine if they are 508 compliant, there would be no need to backtrack and add patches to non-508 sections. There would be less need to ask for waivers which, in turn, would save VA vast amounts of money. Doing this on the front end of a program would eliminate the need to do additional internal research.

For better or worse, VA is by no means the only federal agency that faces scrutiny for Section 508 noncompliance. On April 22, a class action suit was filed on behalf of three blind federal contractors and the American Council of the Blind as plaintiffs against the General Services Administration, alleging that GSA fails to provide a website accessible to blind contractors who must register and renew annually their federal contractor registration.

The aforementioned complaint alleges that SAM.gov is incompatible with screen reading software on which many blind individuals rely to navigate the Internet. As a result, the plaintiffs claim that GSA discriminates against blind federal contractors who cannot register or renew their registration on SAM.gov, which they are required to do under federal law. The suit seeks to force GSA to make its website accessible to blind federal contractors.