Legislative Update

BVA Director of Government Relations Melanie Brunson by Melanie Brunson

Committees Look To Omnibus Bills

As of May 11, a total of 366 bills related to veterans affairs had been introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives and referred to its Committee on Veterans Affairs during the 114th Congress, which began January 5, 2015 and ends January 3, 2017.

At press time, the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs had 163 bills awaiting action. With only 30 working days left on their schedule before the close of this Congress, Members of both Houses are trying to consolidate some of these bills into packages so that they can act on them in clusters. Such legislative packages are sometimes referred to as omnibus bills.

Leaders of both the House and Senate have promised to pass omnibus bills that will markedly improve programs for veterans by the end of the calendar year.

House Appropriations Bill To Increase Vision Research

As is often the case in life, there is more than one way to get a piece of legislation moving. If the Committee to which a bill was referred does not act on the bill, it is then sometimes possible to get another Committee to act. I am very pleased to report that this has happened recently on two different occasions.

Two of the measures BVA is supporting were actually attached to appropriations bills. These actions have allowed their sponsors to get them moving through Committees.

On May 17, the House Appropriations Committee approved a bill funding the Defense Department for Fiscal Year (FY) 2017. The legislation includes an increase in appropriations for peer reviewed vision research from $10 million to $15 million. This is an increase BVA has worked to secure in concert with vision research professionals. The next step will be a vote by the full House, which is scheduled for May 24.

We will keep you posted on this measure. If you do not wish to wait for the next Bulletin or Legislative Alert to learn what has occurred, please feel free to check the BVA website or call us for updates.

MilCon-VA Legislation And Beneficiary Travel

The Senate Committee on Appropriations has also been working on funding bills, one of which is for VA and Military Construction together.

Among the items this bill includes in VA’s budget for FY 2017 is a provision authorizing VA to pay transportation costs for inpatient care of catastrophically disabled veterans, a measure that BVA has been supporting for several years now. This provision was inserted into the bill by Senator John Tester (D-MT), the original sponsor of our legislation.

I am pleased to report that not only did the Senate Appropriations Committee approve this bill but, on May 19, it was passed by the full Senate.

Since the House had passed its bill funding the VA a week earlier, a conference will be necessary between members of the House and Senate to work out differences. A number of differences do indeed exist, including the fact that each of the bills provide VA with varying amounts of money to work with.

What all of this means is that we must keep in touch with Congressional offices to ensure that the provision Senator Tester included in the Senate bill remains in the compromise legislation to which both Houses agree to send to the President. Even so, there is no doubt that we have cleared another significant hurdle in our effort to address one of the many needs of blinded veterans. This is no small feat for the times in which we live. We will provide further updates on this measure when they are made available.

Prosthetics and Sensory Aids Workgroup

BVA is working to improve access to prosthetics. In an effort to address a growing number of reports from the field that orders for prosthetic devices placed for blinded veterans are not always processed in a timely manner, Al Avina and I met on May 4 with Penny Nechanicky, Director of Prosthetics and Sensory Aid Service (PSAS), to express our concerns.
Left to right, Fred Downs, Penny Nechanicky, and Michael O’Rourke at VSO Prosthetic Work group meeting April 27.

Left to right, Fred Downs, Penny Nechanicky, and Michael O’Rourke at VSO Prosthetic Work group meeting April 27.

PSAS is the largest and most comprehensive provider of prosthetic devices and sensory aids in the world. The term “prosthetic” includes artificial limbs and any devices that support or replace a body part or function. VA provides all clinically appropriate and commercially available, state-of-the-art prosthetic equipment to veterans crossing the full range of patient care.

We are also participating in a Veterans Service Organization (VSO) Prosthetics Workgroup that meets monthly and is attended by representatives of both VSOs and VA. The goal of this group is to improve access to prosthetics by improving communication between both entities.

On April 27, Assistant Director of Government Relations Michael O’Rourke attended the monthly meeting. Among the issues discussed were backlogs in prosthetics orders due to unfilled vacancies, VHA’s requirement for three bids on prosthetic equipment, the need to change the policy that VHA does not include VSOs in the development of new policies and directives, and the problems caused by VHA sending changes in procedure to VA employees without notifying the VSOs in Washington.

Penny Nechanicky also attended the April 27 meeting. She presented in some detail the typical processes for issuing items both over and under $3,500, the process for issuing adaptive sports and recreation equipment, and the systems in place for issuing automobile adaptive equipment.

Air Travel Stories from People with Disabilities

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA). BVA is working with Paralyzed Veterans of America and the broader disability community to bring attention to the successes and failures in air travel for passengers with disabilities. Please visit www.AirAccess30.org and share your stories, both good and bad, about air travel. These stories will be used to increase advocacy efforts related to ACAA and improve air travel for people with disabilities. Please feel free to pass on information about this website to other people you know who have disabilities and who travel by air. Our goal is to encourage everyone to share their stories.

VA Secretary Speaks Out

On May 13, Secretary McDonald contributed a brief blog post to The Hill, one of two major Capitol Hill newspapers read widely in Washington, DC, both inside and outside of government. His premise in the article is that the momentum behind his efforts to improve programs and services for veterans must now be complemented by Congressional action.

“There is massive support in this country for improving care and services for our veterans, their families, and survivors, but good will isn’t enough,” he wrote. “The time to take action is now to better care for those who have borne the battle.”

He called on Congress to pass legislation in three specific and pressing areas:

First, Congress must untangle the seven different ways VA provides care in the community. Today’s rules make the process inefficient and they cause confusion for both the veterans and providers. They are in place because of legislation added over the years and they must be legislatively corrected.

Second, VA needs the authority to enter into partnerships to make needed changes to our West Los Angeles campus and more quickly end veterans’ homelessness in the city with the largest concentration of homeless veterans.

Third, and of critical importance to veterans, VA needs the help of Congress to finally fix the broken process by which veterans appeal unfavorable claims decisions, a process conceived more than 80 years ago that is unlike any other appeals process in the federal government. Over decades, layers of additions to the process have made it more complicated, more unpredictable, less clear, and less veteran-friendly.

For the full text of the Secretary’s opinion piece, please click here.