From the Field Staff
By Ed Eckroth
BVA initiatives continue to bring positive change for blinded veterans within VA’s Veterans Health and Benefits Administrations. There are three in particular that are worthy of mention at present.
First, the Association has been working with VA for the past four years to bring Section 504 and Section 508 compliance to the forefront. Section 504 of the National Rehabilitation Act of 1973 is a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities while Section 508 is a federal law mandating that all electronic and information technology developed, procured, maintained, or used by the federal government be accessible to people with disabilities.
BVA has escalated its efforts and challenged VA in its failure to comply with federal law.
A second issue of relevance is BVA’s focus on VA’s failure to properly notify visually impaired veterans of their claim rights. BVA pointed out as early as 2006 that the VA M-21 Manual recognizes that visually impaired veterans require special notification to explain claims decisions.
The Veterans Court of Appeals, per Clarke v. Nicholson, 21 Vet. App. 130, 133 (2007), stated that if a VA Regional Office (VARO) decides a claim but fails to notify the claimant of the decision, the claim remains legally open, even if the VARO clears the corresponding End Product. The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California in 2009 cited the Social Security Administration for Section 504 noncompliance for not providing proper notification.
BVA therefore contends that VA is responsible to reopen any case and pay retroactive benefits to the date of the original claim if it did not meet the duty to assist requirements and call and explain the claim decision and appeal rights.
If you received a VA decision and you were not called and notified of your rights, you may be eligible to reopen your claim for an earlier effective date.
A third area in which BVA has helped bring about recent positive change is in the area of VA travel benefits. Under new federal regulations, travel is provided to any veteran with vision impairment, spinal cord injury or disorder, or double or multiple amputations if the travel is in connection with care provided through a special disabilities rehabilitation program of VA. This is true if such care is provided on an inpatient basis or during a period in which VA provides the veteran with temporary lodging at one of its facilities to make such care more accessible to the veteran.
If you were unable to attend a VA BRC in the past, or it has been considerable time since you have done so, these are welcome changes. We encourage you to see your VIST Coordinator about the possibility of going for the first time or of receiving refresher training.
While these new regulations open travel to BRCs, we also recognize that there are many veterans who struggle with transportation to get to VA Medical Centers for basic care. BVA continues to advocate for better travel options for blind veterans.
BVA has also found many veterans who are eligible for travel benefits but who are not aware of such eligibility. While some facilities may not be providing door-to-door service, you are eligible for travel reimbursement to your VA medical facility for care if you meet the requirements below. If a family member or friend drives you to an appointment, VA should reimburse the driver using a per mile rate.
When it is determined that travel via a privately owned vehicle is not reasonably accessible, or when travel by the most economical common carrier (bus, train, taxi, airplane, etc.) is determined to be medically necessary, full reimbursement of the actual cost should be provided.
Veterans should be aware that there is a deductible for beneficiary travel of $3.00 per one-way trip and $6.00 for a round-trip. The deductible requirement is subject to a monthly maximum amount of $18.00 and may be waived for veterans based on income threshold. Veterans meeting any of the following criteria and desiring to travel should speak with the VA Travel Department in their facility. If they are denied travel improperly, BVA can assist. The criteria are:
- Any veteran traveling to VA for a Compensation and Pension exam for a claim.
- Any veteran service-connected 0-20 percent is entitled to travel for treatment for the service-connected treatment only.
- Any veteran service connected 30 percent or more is entitled to travel for all treatment.
- Nonservice-connected veterans with an annual household income less than $12,907.
- Nonservice-connected veterans who are married, or who have a dependent, and have an annual household income of less than $16,902.
- Nonservice-connected veterans with vision of 5/200 or worse, or who are determined to be in need of Aid and Attendance, with an annual income of less than $21,531.
- Nonservice-connected veterans with vision at 5/200 or worse, or who are determined to be in need of Aid and Attendance and who are married or have a dependent, and have an annual income of less than $25,525.
- Any veteran with vision impairment, or a veteran with a spinal cord injury or disorder, or a veteran with double or multiple amputations whose travel is in connection with care provided through a special disabilities rehabilitation program of the Department (including programs provided by Spinal Cord Injury Centers, BRCs, and Prosthetics Rehabilitation Centers) if such care is provided on an inpatient basis, or during a period in which the Secretary provides the veteran with temporary lodging at a VA facility to make such care more accessible to the veteran.
These three noteworthy changes within VA are responses to the concerns voiced by our membership and leadership over extended periods of time. They have not taken place overnight and have required patience and perseverance. We will continue to carefully monitor progress in these areas and the many others that impact the welfare and quality of life of veterans with vision loss.