Legislative UpdateBVA Director of Government Relations Melanie Brunson

by Melanie Brunson

Election of 2016, 115th Congress

The lame duck 114th Congress reconvened briefly after the elections for one week and resumed full business on November 29. The focus has been on keeping the government fully functioning past December 9 when funding was scheduled to run out. The second session of the 114th is scheduled for final recess no later than December 16.

The 115th Congress will begin its work on January 3, 2017. As an entirely new Congress, its two sessions will coincide with the first two years of the Donald Trump administration.

The election of November 2016 maintained Republican control of both the House and Senate but also resulted in a more ethnically and socially diverse membership. Obviously, we can only speculate about changes that will occur with respect to veterans’ issues in the months ahead as an Executive Branch also controlled by the Republican Party takes office.

The retirement of House Committee on Veterans Affairs Chairman Jeff Miller (R-FL-1) leaves his position, as well as several other chairmanships of the various subcommittees, in limbo. We have no other choice but to take a wait-and-see approach with respect to the Members of Congress with whom we may be working. Because of the change in the Executive Branch, we must take the same approach with the position of Secretary of Veterans Affairs.

A number of Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and Operation Enduring Freedom, Afghanistan (OEF) veterans were elected to the upcoming Congress. Some are disabled veterans. New House Republicans who served in the military are Brian Mast, elected to Florida’s 18th District; Scott Taylor, elected to Virginia’s 2nd District; Jack Bergman, who will occupy Michigan’s 1st District; Neal Dunn in Florida’s 2nd District; and Jim Banks in Indiana’s 3rd District.

House Democrats elected are Jimmy Panetta in California’s 20th District, Anthony Brown in Maryland’s 4th District, and Salud Carbajal in the 24th District of California.

Republican Todd Young, a retired Marine Corps Captain and graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, was elected to the House of Representatives from Indiana’s 9th District in 2011 and has just won the Senate seat occupied by the retiring Dan Coats.

Tammy Duckworth, a well-known Democrat and an advocate for blinded veterans in previous capacities, will also be joining the Senate, having emerged victorious over incumbent Senator Mark Kirk of Illinois. Duckworth lost both legs in Iraq on November 12, 2004 when a rocket-propelled grenade brought down the Black Hawk helicopter she was co-piloting.

Landmark Legislation for Blinded Veterans, Families

In a late September press release, BVA praised the bipartisan effort in both the House of Representatives and the Senate to avoid a government shutdown that also resulted in the passage on September 28 of key legislation for veterans with vision loss.

The legislation, signed by President Obama on September 30, was a Continuing Resolution that extended current government funding levels until December 9. This legislation also gave the Department of Veterans Affairs the statutory authority to provide travel benefits to catastrophically disabled, nonservice-connected blind and visually impaired veterans seeking rehabilitation services at VA facilities. This was the culmination of seven years of BVA advocacy during three sessions of Congress. The legislation applies similarly to amputees and individuals with spinal cord injuries.

The original intent of two bills, introduced in the 114th Congress as H.R. 288 and S. 171 in early 2015, was for Congress to amend Title 38, Section 111 of the U.S. Code to extend eligibility for assistance with the cost of travel to specialized rehabilitation centers to veterans whose disabilities are catastrophic but not “service connected.” These bills were introduced by Representative Julia Brownley (D-CA-26) and Senator Jon Tester (D-MT).

The aforementioned bills had numerous co-sponsors among both Democrats and Republicans when the Senate bill was incorporated into the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs (MilCon-VA) Appropriations bill passed by the Senate earlier this year. Senator Tester was then able to include the Appropriations bill in the Continuing Resolution, which will provide full-year funding for veterans initiatives and military construction projects through September 30, 2017.

We publicly thanked Senator Tester in particular for his recognition of the value of rehabilitation services for catastrophically disabled veterans and his commitment to ensuring that those who need such services the most have access to them. The legislation he pushed through will make it possible for a greater number of blinded veterans to gain access to the rehabilitation and care they need in order to live full and independent lives again. The legislation fills a vital need in a fiscally responsible manner by reducing the veterans' need for assisted living and nursing home care.

We indeed owe tremendous thanks to Senator Tester and Representative Brownley for their staunch support for veterans with catastrophic disabilities. Senator Tester’s leadership ensured that provisions allowing VA to assist such veterans with the cost of travel to and from specialized rehabilitation centers were included in the bill passed by the Senate and remained in the legislation reported out by House and Senate conferees.

2017 COLA Approved

The Social Security Administration announced on October 19 that the more than 8 million recipients of the retirement and disability benefits it administers will receive a Cost-of-Living (COLA) increase in 2017. Beginning December 30, benefits paid will increase 0.3 percent.

As a result of H.R. 5588, the Veterans’ Compensation COLA Act of 2016 signed into law by the President on July 22, injured and ill veterans, their dependents, and their survivors will receive the same 0.3 percent increase. The bill did not contain the contested round-down provision, which would have resulted in compensation rates being rounded down to the nearest whole dollar. Instead, VA compensation beneficiaries will receive their full COLAs.

Veterans COLAs are typically tied to Social Security adjustments, the latter of which will affect more than 60 million Social Security beneficiaries beginning January 2017.

Convention Resolutions

As reported in the convention recap of our previous issue of the Bulletin, the Bylaws and Resolutions Committee was initially presented with 23 proposed resolutions. Two were removed because they were no longer deemed necessary. There were 16 that were then considered and approved as a block since they had been introduced and approved at conventions of prior years.

Five resolutions never before considered were introduced and passed with overwhelming approval by both the Committee and convention delegates from the various regional groups.

The approved resolutions pertaining to VA Central Office have been sent there for their review and response. I will report any responses I receive on these critical issues to both our membership and our Board of Directors. Resolutions pertaining to Congress will help determine with whom we will visit when our Legislative Committee comes to town just prior to the mid-winter Board meetings. I will be setting up appointments for those meetings as soon as we know the composition of the VA committees and subcommittees.

Legislative Alerts

I enjoyed meeting many of our members at a very busy BVA 71st National Convention. Some of those with whom I was able to chat in Milwaukee were those I had conversed with by telephone during the past year. It was nice to hear some of the same voices at the social gatherings and information sessions. Thanks to those who stopped by and listened to a couple of my presentations.

I would encourage as many BVA members as possible to volunteer and sign up for the BVA Legislative Alerts that I distribute periodically via email. This feature allows me to put together legislative updates that supplement the Bulletin updates. I am able to disburse information to this legislative group on key issues. Please send your name, the state in which you reside, and your email address to mbrunson@bva.org

Center for Women Veterans

Many of our BVA members may be unaware of the Center for Women Veterans, the voice of women veterans at VA which was established by Congress in November 1994 by Public Law 103-446. The Center seeks to lead efforts across the Federal government to ensure that the voices of women veterans are heard. Specifically, it monitors and coordinates VA’s administration of health care and benefits, services, and programs for women veterans.

As an advocate, the Center for Women Veterans recognizes the service and contributions of women veterans and women in the military. The Center’s goal is to raise awareness of the responsibility to treat women veterans with dignity and respect. It also seeks to help women connect with the persons and resources that can help them when they need them most.

The Center sends out updates of particular interest to women veterans about once a week. Some of them are, of course, more informative than others, but I’ve been sharing all of them with the women whom I met at the convention.

During the convention a group of women met and decided to establish a special interest group to discuss topics specific to female blind and visually impaired veterans. The participants shared experiences, updates, and information unique to their experience. It is the intent of the group to provide input, when deemed necessary and/or appropriate, to the BVA Board of Directors and those who can bring about change.

If you are interested in participating or receiving the updates, please contact Christina Hitchcock by telephone at BVA National Headquarters or send an email to her at chitchcock@bva.org. Christina will then add you to the “BVA-Women Veterans SIG” Google Group. The email list currently has 37 participants and the group intends to have a quarterly conference call since not all of the veterans use email. Please type “Women Veterans Google Group” in the subject line.

Late-Breaking House Bills

After Thanksgiving, as the end of the 114th Congress approached, both the House of Representatives and the Senate rushed to take action in lame duck mode on as many pending bills as possible, including a few that would affect veterans.

Among those passed in the House on November 29 was H.R. 5600, the No Hero Left Untreated Act. The bill requires VA to carry out a one-year pilot program to treat veterans with PTSD, TBI, chronic pain, and opioid addiction, or who have experienced military sexual trauma, with magnetic EEG/EKG-guided resonance therapy. The treatment uses magnetic stimulation to help restore proper functioning in the brain.

H.R. 5166, as amended, the Wingman Act, would allow veterans to authorize qualified congressional staffers to access their benefits claims information, including medical and pay records.

H.R. 3471, the Veterans Mobility Safety Act, as amended, would direct VA to develop a comprehensive policy regarding quality standards for providers who dispense modification services to veterans under the Automobile Adaptive Equipment Program. The bill would also authorize VA to hire and prescribe qualifications for hiring hearing aid specialists. H.R. 3471 now awaits the President’s signature while the aforementioned other bills await consideration by the Senate.

There are still other veteran-related bills that are pending in both the House and Senate. We will publish additional information about these bills as soon as any results become available.

Audio Version Of Legislative Update