Legislative Update 

by Glenn Minney

Change of Command

 

On January 6, I officially took over the position of Director of Government Relations left vacant by Dr. Thomas Zampieri upon his retirement. I am pleased to serve on behalf of my fellow blinded veterans in this new venture.

I am a life member of BVA and have spoken on behalf of the organization numerous times on Capitol Hill regarding veterans benefits associated specifically with the blinded veteran community. It is my pleasure and honor to now do this on an almost daily basis.

Hill Visits, Testimony

 

Mark Cornell presented oral testimony before a joint session of the House and Senate Committees on Veterans Affairs on March 6. The event occurred on the House side of Capitol Hill in the Cannon House Office Building. A written copy of his testimony was submitted in advance for the record.

We were accompanied by eight other Veterans Service Organizations (VSOs) at the hearing. They were: The Jewish War Veterans; Military Order of the Purple Heart; AMVETS; TREA: The Enlisted Association; Military Officers Association of America; Vietnam Veterans of America; National Guard Association of the U.S.; and the National Association of State Directors of Veterans Affairs.

Left to right at Capitol Hill office visit, Congresswoman Jackie Walorski, Dale Stamper, Mark Cornell, Al Avina, Glenn Minney, and Joe Parker.
Left to right at Capitol Hill office visit, Congresswoman Jackie Walorski, Dale Stamper, Mark Cornell, Al Avina, Glenn Minney, and Joe Parker.

Each organization representative was provided five minutes to present a statement in a panel format that included a question-answer period once all of the statements were complete.

Issues that Mark addressed in the BVA testimony included the Vision Center of Excellence, Defense Vision Trauma Research Program funding, beneficiary travel, and VA Information Technology, the latter of which included compliance with Section 508 of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

During the week of February 24-28 and prior to BVA’s mid-winter Board meetings, the Legislative Committee made a series of short visits on Capitol Hill in an attempt to secure as much support as possible for our beneficiary travel legislation (see below). We visited with Subcommittee Chairman on Health Dan Benishek (R-MI-1), Representative Phil Roe (R-TN-1), Representative Jackie Walorski (R-IN-2), and Legislative Assistants in the offices of Representatives John Culberson (R-TX-7), Mike Coffman (R-CO-6), and Julia Brownley (D-CA-26).

Humayun Presents Research Findings

 

During the hour immediately following our testimony, the Alliance for Eye and Vision Research (AEVR) hosted a Capitol Hill presentation by Dr. Mark Humayun, M.D., Ph.D. of the University of Southern California Eye Institute and a past presenter at BVA national conventions.

The Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology (ARVO) and BVA also co-hosted the event, designed to educate Members of Congress and their staffs regarding the benefits of increased research funding for combat eye trauma research.

The presentation, entitled “Deployment-Related Vision Trauma Research: Development of a Thermo-Responsive Patch for Ocular Trauma,” introduced a novel, suture-less ocular adhesive bandage and contact shield to close sclera trauma of the eye, promote healing, and prevent scarring between the sclera and conjunctiva and/or Tenon’s capsule. Humayun’s research reveals that the bandage could be applied literally on a battlefield and/or immediately after injury from an Improvised Explosive Device.

Former Director of Government Relations and newly appointed BVA Interim Director of District 6 Dr. Tom Zampieri, left, greets Dr. Mark Humayun at Capitol Hill Defense briefing. Photo courtesy of David Roddy, AEVR.
Former Director of Government Relations and newly appointed BVA Interim Director of District 6 Dr. Tom Zampieri, left, greets Dr. Mark Humayun at Capitol Hill Defense briefing. Photo courtesy of David Roddy, AEVR.

Humayun’s work is based on concerns about the increased incidence of ocular trauma in Middle East combat. Unlike civilians experiencing such injuries, combat casualties are typically delayed in receiving full intervention and treatment because of other life-threatening injuries or lack of personnel/equipment to perform ocular reconstructive surgery.

In almost all cases, procedures to repair internal ocular trauma (retina, lens, etc.) and save or restore function are postponed at least 5-7 days and are performed at higher tier medical facilities. During this waiting time, maximizing patient comfort and minimizing risk of further damage and infection to the tissue is critical.

The new approach for traumatic wound closures has the capacity to dramatically alter the treatment of ruptured globe injuries.

Beneficiary Travel

 

As many of you know from previous Bulletin Updates and Legislative Alerts composed by Tom, the issue of beneficiary travel is one that BVA has been working on for quite some time. H.R. 1284 and S. 633 are bills introduced last year by, respectively, Representative Julia Brownley (D-CA-26) and Senator Jon Tester (D-MT).

During the months that have passed since these two bills were introduced, BVA has been able to acquire the following list of co-sponsors on the House side: Representatives Ron Barber (D-AZ-2), Matt Cartwright (D-PA-17), Ann Kuster (D-NH-2), Michael Michaud (D-ME-2), Beto O’Rourke (D-TX-16), Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ-9), and John Tierney (D-MA-6).

Senate co-sponsors at press time were Max Baucus (D-MT), Mark Begich (D-AK), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Dean Heller (R-NV), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Brian Schatz (D-HI), and Sherrod Brown (D-OH).

For blinded veterans who are currently ineligible for VA travel benefits, the cost of travel to one of the 13 Blind Rehabilitation Centers (BRCs) is a major financial burden. Many of them are low-income veterans. The average age of those attending a BRC is 67 because of the high prevalence of degenerative eye disease within this age group.

On May 9 of last year, VA Principal Deputy Under Secretary for Health Robert L. Jesse, M.D., Ph.D., testified in favor of this legislation before the full Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs. He made similar comments on May 21 before the House VA Subcommittee on Health.

ADA 508 Compliance

 

Our Bulletin readers will recall Tom’s efforts in the area of accessibility to VA Internet websites under Section 508 of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). In our last issue, we published two questions that the House Committee had asked of the VA Information Technology Office regarding 1) the budget for compliance, and 2) the time frame for fixing the eBenefits Program to meet ADA 508 access requirements.

Tom expressed hope that progress was on the horizon but maintained that continued Congressional oversight of this process would be necessary.

On January 16, I met with Eric Hannel, Staff Director of the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations of the full House Committee. Mr. Hannel and I discussed the problems associated with 508 Compliance. He told me that he had forwarded two pieces of correspondence to VA’s Director of Information Technology—first in October 2013 and again in December 2013—with no response.

Mr. Hannel is proposing the scheduling of a House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigation hearing regarding the noncompliance so that VA Central Office will then be forced to recognize his request for additional information and a demonstrated commitment to compliance.

Vision Center of Excellence

 

Mr. Hanel also paid a recent visit to the Vision Center of Excellence (VCE). He discovered that the Department of Defense (DoD) has staffed VCE with 12.5 positions but that VA has provided only three, the latter being that of the Deputy Director, Chief of Staff, and a detailed Blind Rehabilitation Specialist.

Of the estimated 20,000 records of blinded veterans placed into the new registry database, which was to be a major function of VCE, VA has taken credit for only one record. Mr. Hannel informed me that he was going to speak with Dr. Mary Lawrence from the VA side of VCE to discuss VA’s lack of staffing support.