Legislative Update 

by Glenn Minney

Midwinter Meetings, Hill Visits

 

Our BVA National Legislative Committee consisting of Dr. Tom Zampieri, Mark Cornell, Dale Stamper, Joe Parker, Paul Mimms, and myself visited the offices of Members of the House and Senate Committees on Veterans Affairs February 23-24. We were accompanied on several visits by Al Avina and Assistant Director of Government Relations Michael O’Rourke.

The purpose of these visits was to educate Members of Congress and their respective staff members specializing in veterans’ issues on the importance of co-sponsoring and encouraging the passage of pending legislation mentioned in this Update that is of specific importance to BVA and blinded veterans in general.

Included on our itinerary were stops at the offices of Representatives Mark Takano (D-CA-41), Ralph Abraham (R-LA-5), and Beto O’Rourke (D-TX-16), with whom we met personally. Kate Raulin, Legislative Assistant in the Office of Representative Brad Wenstrup (R-OH-2), also received us.

National Vice President Dale Stamper discusses BVA legislative priorities with Adam Goodwin, Legislative Assistant for Senator Patty Murray (D-WA). Senator Murray currently serves on the Senate Defense Appropriations Committee.
National Vice President Dale Stamper discusses BVA legislative priorities with Adam Goodwin, Legislative Assistant for Senator Patty Murray (D-WA). Senator Murray currently serves on the Senate Defense Appropriations Committee.

On our agenda additionally during those two days were personal visits at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Central Office with Secretary Robert McDonald and Director of Blind Rehabilitation Service Gale Watson. We also met with VA Acting Under Secretary for Health Dr. Carolyn M. Clancy and Office of Information and Technology Chief Information Officer Stephen W. Warren.

The Capitol Hill and VA appointments were scheduled in conjunction with our annual midwinter Board of Directors meetings. Leading up to the scheduled March 5 oral testimony, Mark remained with us the following week. The additional time with him allowed us visits with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA-12), House VA Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-FL-1), and House VA Committee Ranking Member Corinne Brown (D-FL-5). We also met with Representatives Tim Walz (D-MN-1), Phil Roe (R-TN-1), Dan Benishek (R-MI-1), and Dina Titus (D-NV-1).

As a follow-up to the aforementioned, Michael O’Rourke met on March 12 with representatives of the American Federation of Government Employees and the Veterans and Military Task Force of the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities. The topics of discussion were accessibility and employment.

Annual Testimony

Left to right during visits to Capitol Hill on February 24, Dale Stamper, Tom Zampieri, Al Avina, and National Alliance for Eye and Vision Research (NAEVR) Executive Director James Jorkasky. Photo courtesy of NAEVR.

Left to right during visits to Capitol Hill on February 24, Dale Stamper, Tom Zampieri, Al Avina, and National Alliance for Eye and Vision Research (NAEVR) Executive Director James Jorkasky. Photo courtesy of NAEVR.

An ice storm followed by 6-8 inches of snow throughout the Washington, DC area commenced during the early morning hours of March 5.

Because such an event is relatively unusual, coupled with the fact that the National Capital Area is not very well equipped to handle ice and snow, Chairman Miller postponed the joint hearing of both the House and Senate Committees at which Mark was scheduled to represent blinded veterans in delivering BVA’s oral testimony that morning

The short-notice postponement affected seven additional organizations with whom we were scheduled to outline our legislative priorities in panel format: Non Commissioned Officers Association, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, Vietnam Veterans of America, Military Order of the Purple Heart, Military Officers Association of America, AMVETS, and Paralyzed Veterans of America.

At press time, we feel certain that the change is a postponement rather than a cancellation. We fully expect that this hearing will be rescheduled but that it could be several weeks before it can be put back on the docket. 

Catastrophically Disabled Access to Rehabilitation

 

The new 114th Session of the U.S. Congress has brought new bill numbers and a new title to legislation affecting access to rehabilitation of the catastrophically disabled. The intent of the legislation, however, is still the same—that Congress amend Title 38, Section 111 of the U.S. Code by removing the words “Service Connected” from the existing language. 

Having the law amended would allow the VA Secretary to use existing funds in the beneficiary travel program budget to finance travel for nonservice-connected blind and paralyzed veterans to the many VA Blind Rehabilitation Centers (BRCs) and Spinal Cord Injury clinics. The beneficiary travel program has a Fiscal Year (FY) 2016 budget of $908 million.

As it was last year, Representative Julia Brownley (D-CA-26) is sponsoring H.R. 288 while Senator Jon Tester (D-MT) is sponsoring S. 171. At press time, H.R. 288 was co-sponsored by Senator Jerry Moran (R-KS) and Representatives Gerald Connolly (D-VA-11), James Langevin (D-RI-2), James McGovern (D-MA-2), Gregory Meeks (D-NY-5), Grace Napolitano (D-CA-32), Charles Rangel (D-NY-13), and the aforementioned O’Rourke.

Information Technology And 508 ADA Compliance


Section 508 of the Americans with Disabilities Act requires federal agencies to ensure that all electronic and information technology developed, procured, maintained, or used in the federal environment provide equal access to federal employees and members of the public.

The 2012 Department of Justice (DOJ) report identifies continued challenges with Section 508 implementation and management. The report makes recommendations for training, policy, and better collaboration. A DOJ Section 508 compliance survey completed in the summer of 2012 also found widespread problems and lack of accessible electronic and information technology at federal sites. 

BVA has repeatedly requested in its annual resolutions that VA Information Technology be fully compliant with Sections 508 and 504 of the Americans with Disabilities Act on Veterans Health Administration (VHA) and Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) websites.

We are also concerned about the lack of progress being made on compliance with certain IT programs. There was $11.6 million in FY 2014 for 508 and 504 access program funding with contractor support added to fix these long-standing problems.

Information Accessibility Officers

 

As important as information security is to VA and the 22 million veterans it serves, so is information accessibility. Within the blinded veteran community, access to numerous documents does not exist. Blind as well as elderly veterans must currently choose between their right to file a claim and their right to privacy.

VA has implemented a paperless form filing process. This process is keeping veterans without computer technology or accessibility from having the same right to privacy as those with the technology. Without this technology a veteran must rely on another individual to access his/her private medical records and information.

BVA advocates the services of Information Accessibility Officers. These individuals would serve as liaisons between the 508 compliance officer, the veteran, the service officer, and the blind VA employee. They would be responsible for ensuring that all veterans have the knowledge and access to use VHA and VBA documents and websites.

Information Accessibility Officers would also educate the veteran on how to navigate VA websites and how to point out to VA any and all boundaries that may limit veteran access to information.

Vision Injuries Warrant Additional Research


BVA, along with other Veterans Service Organizations and the National Association for Eye and Vision Research (NAEVR), is again supporting the programmatic request to continue directed funding in FY 2015 for the Vision Trauma Research Program (VTRP) within Peer Reviewed Medical Research (PRMR) for the extramural translational battlefield vision research line item. The request is for an increase from $10 million in FY 2015 to $15 million for FY 2016.

The Peer Reviewed Vision Research Program (VRP) in Defense Appropriations provides funding for extramural vision research into deployment-related vision trauma that is not currently conducted by VA or elsewhere within the Department of Defense (DoD), including the joint DoD/VA Vision Center of Excellence or the National Eye Institute within the National Institutes of Health.

Please read our annual testimony for additional figures relating to Traumatic Eye Injury and the subsequent need for research in treating such injuries. Once presented orally, our written document will be entered into the Congressional Record. It will also be accessible for reading on the House Committee on Veterans Affairs webpage. We will link to the testimony on the BVA website’s HomepageHomepage and News page .

President Obama Signs Suicide Prevention Bill


Legislation intended to reduce the high rate of suicide that is claiming the lives of soldiers and former members of the military, almost by the day, was signed into law by President Barack Obama on February 12 at the White House.

Known officially as the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act, the law had broad support from both Republicans and Democrats and from Veterans Service Organizations, including BVA. I was fortunate enough to be invited to the signing and was present at a gathering that was unusually bipartisan.

The Senate voted 99-0 on February 3 to pass the bill while the House voted in favor 430-0 in January.

The law requires the Pentagon and VA to submit to independent reviews of their suicide prevention programs and make information on suicide prevention more easily available to veterans. It also offers financial incentives to psychiatrists and other mental health professionals who agree to work for VA and assist military members as they transition from active duty to veteran status.

The bill carries the name of Clay Hunt, a 26-year-old Marine who struggled with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder after serving in Iraq and Afghanistan and who took his own life in Texas in 2011.