Landmark Legislation to Benefit Blinded Veterans, Families

Passage of two long-awaited and significant legal provisions will enhance the quality of life for legally blind veterans of the U.S. military. The votes, one in the U.S. House of Representatives and the other in the Senate, occurred July 18 and 19.

The remarkable timing of the two events, largely unrelated, came after months of advocacy efforts by the Blinded Veterans Association in favor of increased funding for military eye-trauma research and years of efforts to expand blinded veterans eligibility for Special Adaptive Housing grants.

According to BVA Director of Government Relations Dr. Tom Zampieri, vision research was one of the lowest Congressionally funded medical programs in Fiscal Year 2012, receiving just $3.2 million. Prostate cancer research received $80 million, autism research received $5.1 million, and the rare Lou Gehrig’s Disease (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) received $6.4 million.

The Defense appropriations bill that passed the House of Representatives on July 19 included $10 million for military eye-research funding through an amendment introduced by Representative Timothy Walz (D-MN-1) and passed by unanimous voice vote.

“Vision research, and especially combat military eye-trauma research, has been severely underfunded,” said Tom. “After months of work, and with support from three other groups—Veterans Service Organizations, the American Academy of Ophthalmology, and the National Alliance for Eye Vision Research—Representative Walz’s leadership pushed it through the House vote.”

Walz received colleague support from Representative Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ-11) and Representative Jon Runyan (R-NJ-3). The $10 million is the highest ever since defense vision research began in 2001.

Inclusion of the amendment in the Defense appropriations bill was reported in a Washington Post blog by reporter Timothy R. Smith on July 20.

BVA received a second dose of positive news just one day later with passage by unanimous consent of the “Honoring America’s Veterans and Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act of 2012,” or S. 914. A key provision in the bill, Section 320, helps deserving, 100 percent service-connected blinded veterans receive the housing benefits they have earned.

In the recent past, eligibility for the $13,860 Special Adaptive Housing grant has required that veterans meet criteria of 5/200 for blindness rather than the more commonly accepted visual acuity standard of 20/200, or 20 degrees of field loss. Section 320 provides that the Department of Veterans Affairs adopt the commonly accepted standard so that additional blinded veteran will become eligible for the grant.

“This change is something we have been fighting for since 2010,” said Tom. “We thank Senator Mark Begich (D-AK) and Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) for their support of the current provision and are most grateful to Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-WA) for her longstanding support on this issue and the many others that have impaced BVA over the years.

In its entirety and in addition to the Special Adaptive Housing provision, the “Honoring America’s Veterans and Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act of 2012” is a comprehensive package of bipartisan and bicameral legislation that extends health care to veterans and their families who lived at Camp Lejeune. It also expands critical health programs, enhances programs for homeless veterans, and makes needed improvements to the disability claims system.

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