Legislative UpdateBVA Director of Government Relations Melanie Brunson

by Melanie Brunson

Annual Hearing On Capitol Hill

The pace of legislative activity has picked up considerably since our last report.

On March 22, BVA National President Dale Stamper testified at a joint hearing of the House and Senate Veterans Affairs Committees. He was allotted five minutes to speak and his statement covered three issues: the need for the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to address the lack of accessibility of its websites and other written communications; the need for VA to adopt technology that gives blinded veterans access to safety warnings and other information about prescription medications they receive from VA pharmacies; and a request for support of continued funding for the Department of Defense (DoD) Vision Research program.

Testimony Recommendations

In addition to Dale’s oral remarks, BVA submitted a written statement containing detailed information about our legislative priorities and concerns. This statement included a series of recommendations for Congressional action. Here is the complete list of the recommendations:

  • BVA requests that the 115th Congress conduct an Oversight Hearing on VA lack of compliance with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act throughout the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) and Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) information technology programs, and that Congress require that VA set timelines, funding levels, and staffing goals for addressing areas of noncompliance.
  • BVA recommends that the Veterans Affairs Committees urge VA to develop policies and practices that enable VA's agencies to identify the veterans and VA employees who need access to materials and correspondence in formats other than print by virtue of disabilities, and to ensure that they have the capacity to communicate with such individuals in appropriate accessible formats.
  • BVA requests an increase in appropriations to support funding for purchase of new equipment needed to provide blind patients with access to updated prescription drug labels in all VA hospitals and outpatient facilities whose pharmacies provide labels for ScripTalk units to blind and visually impaired patients.
  • BVA requests that Members of the Veterans Affairs Committees express their support to appropriators for funding of the DoD Vision Research Program within the Congressionally Directed Medical Research Program at $15 million in FY 2017.
  • BVA requests oversight of the full establishment of the Vision Center of Excellence and the Defense Veterans Eye Injury Registry on resources, program management, and funding. The Association similarly requests oversight of the Hearing Center of Excellence.
  • BVA requests Congressional support for VA's adherence to high standards in the recruitment of employees and contractors who provide rehabilitation training to blinded veterans and urges Congress to ensure that VA continue requiring certification by recognized accrediting bodies.
  • BVA urges Congress to pass legislation providing for research and treatment of vision-related conditions that continue to plague Vietnam era veterans exposed to toxic substances during their service, and further requests support for a VA study of the link between Agent Orange and Choroidal Melanoma Eye Cancer.
  • Congress must repeal the inequitable requirement that the amount of an annuity under the Survivor Benefit Plan be reduced on account of, and by an amount equal to, the amount received by a veteran under Dependency and Indemnity Compensation.

BVA Legislative Committee Meets with Key Members, Staff

Left to right at presentation of Legislative Champion Award March 21 to Senator Jon Tester: Tom Zampieri, Chelsey Dumond, Paul Mimms (guide dog Brook-lyn), Joe Parker (Josie), Joe McNeil, Al Avina (Katy), Dale Stamper (Venture), Senator Tester, Melanie Brunson (Sparta), and Mark Cornell.

Left to right at presentation of Legislative Champion Award March 21 to Senator Jon Tester: Tom Zampieri, Chelsey Dumond, Paul Mimms (guide dog Brooklyn), Joe Parker (Josie), Joe McNeil, Al Avina (Katy), Dale Stamper (Venture), Senator Tester, Melanie Brunson (Sparta), and Mark Cornell.

Prior to the aforementioned hearing, the BVA Legislative Committee, in town for the Board of Directors spring meetings, visited the offices of both Chairman Phil Roe (R-TN-1) and Ranking Member Tim Walz (D-MN-1) of the House Committee. We also visited with a number of other Members of Congress and their staffs on the Committee. Their initial responses to BVA’s recommendations were positive. Although it is too early to tell what will come of these meetings, we are hopeful that the Committees will take action on at least some of the issues of concern to blinded veterans.

On March 21, BVA’s national officers presented awards to two legislators who were instrumental in the approval of a BVA legislative priority passed by both houses of Congress and signed into law by the President last year. Dale recognized and thanked Senator Jon Tester (D-MT), who sponsored S. 171, and Congresswoman Julia Brownley (D-CA-26), who sponsored H.R. 288, for the assistance they provided in getting the bills passed. The plaques presented express appreciation for their invaluable support. They also include a BVA seal and the words to the Pledge of Allegiance in print and Braille.

Pending Legislation Relevant To Blinded Veterans and Families

In early March, the House of Representatives passed three significant bills relating to veterans and VA. H.R.1367, which would expand VA’s authority to recruit, hire, and promote highly qualified employees, passed the House by a margin of 412-0. H.R. 1259, which would allow VA to use an expedited process to fire, demote, or suspend employees who perform their jobs poorly, passed the House by a vote of 237-178. The third bill, H.R. 1181, limits the circumstances under which veterans with mental disabilities can be deemed automatically ineligible to purchase firearms. H.R. 1181 passed by a vote of 240-175.

A long list of additional bills awaits Congressional action. This list continues to grow as additional veteran legislation is introduced each week. We will update you as Congress and President Trump take further action on any of the pending bills or issues of concern.

Begin Receiving Periodic Updates

If you are interested in obtaining legislative information during the two months between each Bulletin issue, please consider subscribing to our Legislative Updates email list. We try to send out detailed legislative reports at least once each month. We do it more frequently when necessary so that our members can remain abreast of time-sensitive information.

To join this email list, send a message to mbrunson@bva.org and include the words “Legislative Email List” in the subject line. Please feel free to also use the aforementioned address to contact me with any additional questions you may have about our legislative and advocacy activities.

We understand also that some of our BVA members become involved in state and local legislative issues that affect blind and visually impaired veterans in their communities. Whenever appropriate, please feel free to share valuable or interesting information, experiences, and perspectives from which we can learn more about these issues.

Audio Version Of Legislative Update