by Melanie Brunson
A Brief Introduction
Hello BVA members and friends.
I am very pleased to communicate with you as the newest member of BVA’s Government Relations staff. It is my hope that this will be the first of many updates that I, as Director of Government Relations, will share with you.
I am an attorney, but I hope you won’t hold that against me. I have spent the past 20 years working on legislative and advocacy activities on behalf of people who are blind or visually impaired with a national membership organization known as the American Council of the Blind (ACB). I spent five years as ACB’s Director of Advocacy and Governmental Affairs and ten years as its Executive Director. Prior to coming to Washington to work for ACB, I spent two years working for disability rights law offices and several years in private law practice in California.
Melanie Brunson, middle, shares impressions of Arlington National Cemetery Veterans Day ceremony with husband Lyle, left, and BVA National President Dale Stamper.
I am looking forward to the opportunity to work on government relations issues on a full-time basis once again and I am especially pleased to be working with BVA.
Vital Pending Legislation Affecting Blinded Veterans
We are currently working to bolster support for legislation to expand coverage of the travel expense incurred by veterans with nonservice-connected disabilities who must travel to a Blind Rehabilitation Center (BRC) for training. The House bill, H.R. 288, now has 18 co-sponsors. At press time, a similar bill in the Senate, S. 171, has four co-sponsors. We will be working to increase the number of co-sponsors in both houses before the end of this Congress.
We encourage our BVA members and all blinded veterans to help educate members of Congress regarding this legislation. Increasing the accessibility of rehabilitation opportunities is of paramount importance to our blinded veterans.
If you have questions about these bills, or would like to give us any feedback about visits you have with Congressional offices, please feel free to send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or call either me or Assistant Director of Government Relations Michael O’Rourke at BVA National Headquarters.
Another bill introduced in the House of Representatives in October has generated considerable interest among persons with disabilities. This bill would amend the Americans with Disabilities Act by adding some significant restrictions on the right of individuals to file lawsuits for violations of the ADA.
The bill, known as the ADA Education and Reform Act (H.R. 3765), would prohibit anyone from suing an alleged violator unless the individual first gives written notice of the violation to the offending party, followed by 60 days for them to correct the violation. Only if the correction is not made within the time specified can a suit be filed.
H.R. 3765 was introduced by Representative Ted Poe (R-TX-2). It currently has six co-sponsors: Representatives Doug Collins (R-GA-9), David W. Jolly (R-FL-13), Kenny Marchant (R-TX-24), Mick Mulvaney (R-SC-5), Devin Nunes (R-CA-22), and Lamar Smith (R-TX-21). The bill has been referred to the House Judiciary Committee. We are watching its progress and will keep you posted on significant developments.
BVA and VA Council Discuss AFGE Issues
On September 21, Michael O’Rourke attended a semi-annual meeting and lunch event of the VA Council of the American Federation of Government Employees.
The meeting attendees were representatives of various Veterans Service Organizations (VSOs) and two AFGE officials: Mike Rosenblatt, Lobbyist/Grassroots Mobilization Coordinator of the National VA Council; and Legislative Representative Marilyn Parks.
Left to right, Mike Rosenblatt, Marilyn Parks, and Michael O’Rourke.
During the meeting Michael asked the two AFGE officials to address BVA concerns about VA staffing issues relating to the reality that 1.5 million veterans have levels of low vision that impair their ability to perform everyday tasks.
He also emphasized that the major causes of vision loss include glaucoma (285,000 are diagnosed), age-related macular degeneration, cataracts, stroke, and diabetic retinopathy. Among veterans who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, blast-related brain injuries can be followed by vision problems such as blurriness, double vision, sensitivity to light, and difficulty reading.
Although there are 13 VA BRCs throughout the country, Michael told them, such centers are often not filled to capacity due to staffing deficiencies.
DOT Seeks Simplicity For Air Travelers
On December 2, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx announced that the Department of Transportation (DOT) is considering the feasibility of developing new rules to ensure equal access to air travel for people with disabilities.
Among other specifics, DOT is exploring negotiated regulations to ensure that the same in-flight entertainment available to most passengers is accessible to passengers with disabilities. The Department also seeks to determine the appropriate definition of a service animal for purposes of allowing such animals access to air travel. A new definition would also reduce the likelihood that passengers wishing to travel with their pets would be able to falsely claim that their pets are service animals.
We will let you know if DOT decides to proceed with this regulatory negotiation process. We will also provide information on how interested individuals might be able to participate on an advisory committee or make public comment on the proposed regulations.
COLA Update and An Important Appeal
Finally, here’s a news item that may be of interest to anyone who receives either a veteran’s pension or Social Security benefits. It has come to our attention that neither program will grant Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) increases in 2016. Therefore, the amount in benefits paid to each recipient will remain the same at least through the end of next year.
If you have questions about any of these issues, please do not hesitate to contact us by phone or email. I would be pleased to become acquainted with as many of you as possible.
There are many occasions in which Members of Congress and other public officials need to hear from individual veterans who will be affected by the decisions they are about to make. On such occasions, you, their constituents, have much greater persuasive powers than we who work in Washington.
If you would be interested in receiving legislative updates by email from the national office as a means to remain informed and take subsequent action, we would like to hear from you! Please send me an email and include “Legislative Contact List” in the subject line. We will add your address to our legislative contacts list and send you news alerts electronically about significant legislative and policy developments.
We promise not to clutter your inbox but we hope to inform you and inspire you to take action as appropriate. Thank you in advance for your interest and assistance!