Legislative UpdateBVA Director of Government Relations Melanie Brunson

by Melanie Brunson

Summer Recess and Transportation Funding

By the time this issue of the Bulletin catches up with our readers, Congress will be on a summer break. This break began at the close of business on July 15 and continues until after Labor Day. As I type, there is a flurry of activity as lawmakers try to wrap up as much of their outstanding business as possible before that July 15 deadline.

The focus is on appropriations legislation, which includes bills that provide funding for government agencies and the programs they administer. Appropriations bills that fund the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and its programs, as well as the Department of Defense, are of particular concern to BVA. This is because the lawmakers who have sponsored the bills we have supported during the past year have succeeded in getting these proposals attached to appropriations bills.

Senator Jon Tester (D-MT) was instrumental in getting the Senate to adopt an amendment to the bill that would fund both VA and several other agencies and programs. It would authorize VA to pay for the travel of catastrophically disabled veterans to Blind Rehabilitation Centers (BRCs) as called for in S. 171, introduced by Senator Tester at BVA’s behest earlier in the 114th session of Congress. This bill passed the Senate in June.

Since the House had previously passed its own bill funding these programs but differing from the Senate bill in several respects, there was a conference between the House and Senate to work out a compromise. Our language made it into the legislation sent by that Conference Committee to both Houses of Congress. The House has now approved the Conference Committee’s bill.

Senate leaders have expressed hope that they will act on the Conference Committee’s bill before July 15. Some of its provisions, however, are the subject of major partisan squabbling so it is unclear as to whether action will be taken before the recess.

Melanie Brunson with, left to right, Dr. John Clark (2015-16 National President of the Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology), Tom Zampieri, and Danny Wallace at a Capitol Hill presentation by vision researcher Dr. Joseph Ciolino of the Harvard Medical School March 17.

Melanie Brunson with, left to right, Dr. John Clark (2015-16 National President of the Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology), Tom Zampieri, and Danny Wallace at a Capitol Hill presentation by vision researcher Dr. Joseph Ciolino of the Harvard Medical School March 17. Dr. Ciolino discussed his research into the development of a corticosteroid-releasing Therapeutic Contact Lens to treat ocular injuries and blinded eye diseases.

Vision Research

A similar situation exists with regard to the proposed increase in funding from $10 to $15 million for Fiscal Year 2017 for the Department of Defense’s Congressionally Directed Vision Research programs.

That funding increase was included in the DoD appropriation approved by the House last month. Not only did the Senate bill not include this funding increase, it also contained other significant differences with the House bill.

The resulting Conference Committee bill includes the increase in research dollars BVA requested. It also includes money for Zika research, but the sum allocated is not enough to satisfy the Democrats in Congress or the White House. At press time, the Republicans in the House had enough votes to pass the measure while the Senate has yet to consider the bill in its entirety.

Prospects for Passage

We remain cautiously optimistic about the prospects for passage of both of the aforementioned appropriations bills. Because they involve large chunks of the federal budget and cover a multitude of federal programs, numerous pitfalls on the horizon could still prevent these bills from getting to the White House for the President to sign into law.

The White House has, in fact, threatened to veto the Defense appropriation as well. Even so, we are pleased to have survived a number of major hurdles to get our proposals this far. This gives us reason to think that if either of these measures gets across the finish line this year, there is a 50-50 chance that one or both will contain provisions that benefit veterans who have visual impairments. We will keep our readers and social media followers posted.

New VA Application Removes Access Barriers

Beginning June 30, veterans applying for health care will be directed to a health care application at https://www.vets.gov. Unlike the online 10-10EZ and previous applications, this form does not require special software to open nor does it need to be printed by the veteran or VA staff to be processed.

VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson clarified the purpose and benefits of the new form with the following comment released in a press statement June 30:

“Veterans could previously apply for health care online, but the user experience was often frustrating, and the process required VA employees to generate paper applications that were manually entered into our eligibility verification and enrollment processing systems. The new application is an HTML form on vets.gov that requires nothing more than an Internet connection and 15-45 minutes of your time depending on the complexity of the application. The application can also be submitted without a login. We believe it is important to make this process as easy as possible. A log-in option will be added later this year allowing veterans to save their application and to update their information, but it won’t be required to apply for health care.”

The new application is for veterans who have not previously applied for VA health care. The 10-10EZ (paper form) will still be in the forms database so that veterans and third parties serving them can access the form to print it out. However, the expectation is that anyone seeking to apply for care eligibility online will use the online application or call the number listed on vets.gov.

Signatures on VA Applications No Longer Required

VA also announced on July 5 that it has eliminated paper signature requirements for veterans wishing to enroll in VA health care. The announcement stated:

“Effective immediately, VA has amended its enrollment regulations to allow veterans to complete applications for enrollment in VA health care by telephone without the need for a paper signature. This action also accelerates VA’s effort to enroll all combat veterans with pending enrollments as part of its ongoing Veterans Enrollment Rework Project (VERP).”

By adding this telephone application option to VA’s regulations relating to this amendment, VA will now offer three ways to enroll under 38 CFR 17.36(d)(1). This option provides veterans with a convenient third enrollment option in addition to the paper VA Form 10-10 EZ and the online health care application. To apply, call 1-877-222-VETS (8387), 8:00 a.m.-8:00 p.m., Eastern Time, Monday through Friday.

Commission on Care Releases Landmark Report

The much anticipated report of the Commission on Care was released on July 5. Readers may recall that this commission was established in 2014 following revelations of gross mismanagement of the Phoenix VA Health Care System. Its 192-page report confirms previous findings that the Veterans Health Administration suffers from “many profound deficiencies,” especially in the area of access to care, and that those deficiencies require “urgent reform.”

The report also contains a series of 18 recommendations for undertaking such reform. These include multiple changes to improve leadership, enhance clinical operations, modernize computer systems, and create a simple-to-use personnel system.

Since the report was released at press time, we have not yet had an opportunity to review it in its entirety. Nevertheless, two of its recommendations were highlighted in accompanying news releases.

The first recommendation is a call for creation of an 11-member Board of Directors, accountable to the President and responsible for overall governance of the Veterans Health Administration. The Board would work with a proposed new Administrator, Chief of the VHA Care System, who would be appointed to a five-year term by the President.

Another recommendation concerns the current Choice program, which the Commission says is inadequate and flawed. Members of the Commission recommended replacing it with a new community network of care for all veterans, regardless of wait times or geographic locations. That system would include Department of Defense medical facilities, other federal health providers, and private doctors and hospitals credentialed by VHA.

Members of Congress, VA officials, and VSOs are all reviewing the Commission’s proposals. They will likely be further discussed extensively over the next few weeks. It is too early to tell what the long-term value of this report will be, but we will keep you apprised of any developments that could impact your care, for better or for worse.