by Melanie Brunson
Funding Increases For Vision Research
I am pleased to begin this Update with news of another legislative victory for BVA and our friends in the vision research community. The spending bill that Congress approved and sent to the President for his signature on May 4 included an appropriation of $15 million for the Vision Research Program that is managed by the Department of Defense.
This is a much-needed increase. BVA and officials of the National Alliance for Eye and Vision Research have been working to obtain an increase from $10 to $15 million for almost two years. We are very pleased to see the change in funding levels for this research.
The spending bill that was passed also gives the National Institutes of Health an increase of 6.2 percent, which includes an increase of 2.33 percent for the National Eye Institute’s research program. We are hopeful that these funding levels will be continued as Congress begins work on funding government programs for Fiscal Year 2018, which starts on October 1 of this year. At press time, that prospect appeared promising.
We will stay in contact with Congressional offices to ensure that these funding levels remain intact in the appropriations for next year.
BVA presented Representative Julia Brownley (D-CA-26) with the organization’s Legislative Champion Award March 21 for her extra-mile efforts that resulted in successful passage of beneficiary travel legislation last fall. Pictured, left and right, Paul Mimms and Dale Stamper.
Process Modernization For Appeal of Claims
One of the hot topics within the House and Senate Committees on Veterans Affairs is modernizing the process for appealing claims for benefits within the Veterans Benefits Administration. Members of both the House and Senate want the current five-year waiting period for the processing of appeals to be shortened and made much less complex.
Members of both parties have introduced legislation, the Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act of 2017, to update and shorten that process. Here is a brief snapshot of the proposed legislation, which creates three options for veterans dissatisfied with the initial decision on their claims. The legislation would allow veterans to do the following:
- Seek a higher-level review by a VA Regional Office on the same evidence presented to the original claims processors.
- File a supplemental claim with a Regional Office that would include the opportunity to submit additional evidence.
- Appeal directly to the Board of Veterans Appeals, resulting in a possible hearing and/or the opportunity to submit additional evidence.
The legislation would:
- Help ensure that current pending appeals are acted upon as quickly as possible.
- Require the U.S. Government Accountability Office to review VA’s plan for addressing pending appeals and implementing the new appeals system.
- Give VA the authority to test facets of the new appeals system on a smaller scale.
- Require the current VA Secretary to certify to Congress that the Department has the necessary resources to implement the new system.
- Address pending and new appeals in a timely manner before the new system can take effect.
- Require VA to report data regarding the previous system and the new system in order to gauge its success in serving veterans, their families, and their survivors.
To ensure that veterans will be better served by the new system, the Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act of 2017 will:
- Protect the effective date of a benefits award by dating back to the original filing of the claim if a veteran files a supplemental claim after a decision has been made by the Court of Appeals for Veterans.
- Allow VA to develop policies permitting veterans to modify information in their notices of disagreement if they appeal to the Board of Veterans Appeals or change the option they initially selected.
- Require VA to provide expedited treatment for claims that are returned or remanded to the Veterans Benefits Administration for correction of error.
- Ensure that independent medical expert opinions can still be obtained by VA in medically complex cases.
Both the House and Senate versions of these bills have the same title. The bill number in the House is H.R. 2288 while the number in the Senate is S. 712. We anticipate that the VA Committees may try to put these bills on a fast track. Please check the BVA website for further updates on their progress. We will give you an update in the next Bulletin as well.
VA Accountability and Trump Executive Order
Led by Melanie Brunson, far right with guide dog Sparta, members of the BVA Board of Directors and eadquarters staff gathered in the Hart Senate Office Building Atrium following organization’s annual testimony March 22. Back row, left to right: Joe Burns, Mark Cornell, Joe Parker (guide dog Josie), Paul Kaminsky, Jeremiah Belk, Dale Stamper, Joe McNeil, Paul Mimms (guide dog Brook-lyn), Vernon Richmond, and Wade Davis. Front row: Jhennicea Morrow and Claudia Belk.
On April 27, President Trump visited VA Central Office. While there, he signed an executive order creating an Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection within the Department that will focus on improving VA’s accountability for providing quality care to veterans. The order also seeks to reward and protect those who help to shed light on accountability issues, i.e. whistleblowers.
According to the office of Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs Chairman Johnny Isakson (R-GA), the order mirrors a proposal in Chairman Isakson’s Veterans First Act, introduced in the last Congress. It calls for the appointment of an executive director to get the office up and running within 45 days of the signing of the order. Isakson accompanied the President at the signing.
We expect that additional information will be made public over the course of the next 45 days as to what this office will actually do, either through policies implemented by VA Secretary David Shulkin’s office, the White House, or through actions by Congress.
Sunset Date Eliminated for Veterans Choice Program
By virtue of The Veterans Choice Program Improvement Act passed in early April, both the House and Senate have removed the date on which the Veterans Choice Program was scheduled to end.
The program will now continue until the original funding has been expended rather than comply with a statutory sunset date.
“By eliminating the sunset date of the Choice Act, Congress is ensuring that veterans have certainty and continuity of care while we work with the Trump administration to develop a strategic plan that addresses the need for a veteran-centric, coordinated network of care that utilizes the strengths of both VA and community health providers,” said House Committee Chairman Dr. Phil Roe (R-TN-1).
Among other things, the Choice program allows veterans to increase the participation of their own private sector doctors in providing for their health care needs. President Trump signed the bill into law on April 19.
American Health Care Act
Our readers may be interested in information about the potential impact of legislation passed recently by the House to revamp the federal government’s role with regard to health insurance.
On May 4, the House passed the American Health Care Act. That bill must also be approved by the Senate before it can become law. However, at this time Senate leaders have indicated that they intend to write their own bill and have no plans to take up the bill sent to them by the House. As a result, we do not anticipate any changes to the status quo for some time. As the situation develops, we will update you on this issue.