September’s Washington Update

September 16, 2016                                                        Volume 22, No. 9

***PRIORITY***

The Government Relations staff is still looking for stories about problems that our members have experienced during air travel.  Please visit www.AirAccess30.org and share your story. 

The Independent Budget Begins Development of Policy Agenda for the 115th Congress

During the August recess, PVA met with our partners in The Independent Budget (IB)—Disabled American Veterans and Veterans of Foreign Wars—to begin the planning process for the IB Policy Agenda for the 115th Congress.  Following the meeting, the organizations approved six critical issues that will lead the next IB.  Those issues are:

  1. Restructure the Delivery of Veterans Health Care—The Independent Budget will focus on the framework for veterans’ health care delivery reform proposed last year. Inherent in this framework is the preservation and strengthening of a robust Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) health care system, particularly specialized services such as spinal cord injury and disease care, blind and vision impaired care, polytrauma care, traumatic brain injury care, and mental health care services.
  2. Remove Budget Constraints that Negatively Impact Veterans Programs—This issue will focus on the structural impediments that lead to insufficient resources being provided to ensure VA has adequate capacity to meet the needs of veterans.
  3. Reform the Claims and Appeals Process—Appeals modernization and reform has been a primary objective of VA leadership this year and has been widely discussed in the House and Senate.
  4. Realign and Modernize Capital Infrastructure—The misalignment and deterioration of much of VA’s capital infrastructure is a commonly discussed problem that continues to negatively impact the delivery of care to veterans.
  5. Expand and Improve the Comprehensive Family Caregiver Program—Expansion of the comprehensive family caregiver program administered by the VA to veterans of all eras remains a high priority for The Independent Budget.
  6. Ensure that VA Provides High-Quality, Effective Programs and Services to Meet the Unique Needs of Women Veterans—Much work remains to ensure that women veterans are able to access the full range of health care services that are appropriate to their unique needs.

The document will also include a wide-array of issues addressing veterans’ benefits, health care, construction, education, employment and national cemeteries.  The IB Policy Agenda will be released in January 2017 in conjunction with the start of the 115th Congress.

House and Senate VA Committees Review Commission on Care Report

Following the long August recess, the House and Senate Committees on Veterans’ Affairs returned to work.  Their first order of business included hearings to review the Commission on Care report released in July.  The House VA Committee conducted its hearing on September 7 and the Senate VA Committee followed up with a hearing on September 14.  PVA submitted an official statement for the record for both of the hearings.

In July, the Commission on Care, established by P.L. 113-146, the “Veterans Access, Choice, and Accountability Act of 2014” (Choice Act), released its final report on the future of veterans’ health care.  The Commission was charged with examining access to care and strategically examining how best to organize the Veterans Health Administration, locate health care resources, and deliver health care to veterans during the next 20 years.  The report contains 18 major recommendations.  The most notable recommendations include establishment of an integrated health care network to expand access to care.  This recommendation mirrors in many ways previous recommendations of The Independent Budget—co-authored by PVA, DAV, and VFW—as well as the current community care consolidation plan that the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) unveiled last fall.

The Commission also recommended a governance board to oversee the planning, policy and implementation of a new veterans’ health care system.  While this idea seems intriguing, it does not contemplate the biggest challenges of a new governance structure.  Specifically, this board would actually be more politically driven than current VA leadership due to the mechanism for selecting board members (appointed by House and Senate leadership).  Additionally, the Commission did not rationalize the interaction between the Veterans Health Administration and the Veterans Benefits Administration and how that would be impacted by this new governance structure.

The greatest concern PVA has with the Commission report is the recommendation regarding “choice.”  The report calls for allowing veterans the choice of primary provider within the new integrated health care networks.  However, it does not consider the impact that giving more veterans expanded choice will have on the current VA health care system and specifically specialized services, such as spinal cord injury and disease care.  The Commission analysis suggests that as much as 40 percent more care will move into the community under this proposal.

PVA also expressed other concerns with the Commission report.  We provided a detailed analysis to the Administration as well as the House and Senate Committees on Veterans’ Affairs.  PVA’s initial response and our in-depth statements for the record to this report can be found at www.pva.org.  The full report can be viewed at https://commissiononcare.sites.usa.gov/.

House Passes Important Legislation

As Congress returned after Labor Day from its annual summer recess, a few veterans-related bills passed through the House.  H.R. 5620, the “VA Accountability First and Appeals Modernization Act,” has two major components.  The first is a set of accountability measures which would institute reforms at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and provide the Secretary increased flexibility to remove a VA employee for performance or misconduct.  It also strengthens whistleblower protections, including restricting bonus awards for supervisors who retaliate against whistleblowers

The second major component of H.R. 5620, is the proposed overhaul of the veterans’ disability claims and appeals process that PVA has been involved with since the plan’s inception.  The legislation is the work product of a collection of VSO’s who collaborated and negotiated for several months with VA.  While PVA supports the proposed system, we still insist there is further work to be done to deal with how that system is implemented.

With appeals now taking a minimum of three years on average to adjudicate, there is a strong consensus on the Hill that reform is needed now.  PVA participated in a press conference held at the Capitol Visitor Center promoting the issue.  Several members of Congress were present, including Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), who introduced S. 3328, a bill that mirrors only the appeals provisions in H.R. 5620.  Because the accountability portion of H.R. 5620, is highly politicized, its fate in the Senate remains unclear.  However, PVA does support both components of H.R. 5620.

The House also passed H.R. 3471, the “Veterans Mobility Safety Act,” by voice vote with strong bipartisan support.  The bill will require VA to develop safety certification standards for vendors installing Adaptive Automobile Equipment (AAE).  Current law does not require individuals or businesses installing adaptive equipment to demonstrate any sort of qualifications or expertise to do so, sometimes leading to faulty and dangerous installations.  The process of developing those standards would include industry representatives, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and most importantly, veterans’ service organizations.  Given the very high percentage of PVA members who rely upon AAE, we are well-positioned to represent the interests of veterans and ensure that the standards do not diminish the availability and delivery of these products.  We are now awaiting Senate consideration of a similar bill.  Senator Jerry Moran (R-KS) is preparing to introduce an amended version of H.R. 3471, which PVA supports, that should see this important legislation signed into law.

The House also passed H.R. 5936, the “Veterans Care Agreement and West Los Angeles Leasing Act of 2016.”   While PVA supported the overall intent of the bill and particularly the provisions related to provider agreements, we expressed serious concerns about aspects of the legislation.  VA has long struggled to attract smaller provider organizations necessary to fill gaps in health care services found in rural areas due to the laborious FAR process that governs contracting.  This bill will streamline the process for providers, allowing greater access to care as smaller organizations find it feasible to join the VA’s health care network.  PVA objected, however, to the bill’s weakening of employment opportunities and protections available for veterans, veterans with disabilities, and individuals with disabilities. The bill ultimately permits Veterans Care Agreement providers to not comply with important nondiscrimination and affirmative hiring provisions.  PVA and our partners in the disability and veterans communities have long opposed efforts to minimize this compliance.

Work Continues on ACCESS Committee

The DOT ACCESS Committee that was established in May will meet for the 5th time in mid-September with one more face to face meeting scheduled for October before the Committee completes its work. The Committee appointees are working hard to come to a consensus point of agreement on the definition of a service animal, whether DOT should require new single aisle aircraft to have an accessible lavatory and should in-flight entertainment and communications be accessible for those who are deaf and hard of hearing and or blind.

Before the September meeting members of the lavatory working group traveled to Dallas to board and study four different American Airlines twin aisle aircraft to view configurations of the accessible lavatory.  Twin aisle aircraft are required to have one accessible lavatory that would allow a passenger on an on-board wheelchair to enter the lavatory and have the door closed.  The working group also reviewed a smaller commuter-style plane to better understand the challenges with accessibility on that model of aircraft.  The Committee members hope to garner information and ideas from the design of these lavatories that can be used on single aisle aircraft.

PVA Supports Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces Regulation

To ensure that federal contractors better comply with laws that protect their workers’ safety, wages and civil rights, the U.S. Department of Labor announced on August 25th final regulations and guidance implementing the Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces Executive Order.  Signed by President Obama in July 2014, the order requires prospective federal contractors to disclose labor law violations and gives agencies more guidance on how to consider labor violations when awarding federal contracts. It directs the department and the council to issue regulations and guidance to implement the new requirements.

In a statement coinciding with the regulations release, PVA Executive Director, Sherman Gillums stated, “Every American should be protected against discrimination of any kind in the workplace, and Paralyzed Veterans of America commends President Obama for taking this action. The American workforce is increasingly diverse. As a result, upholding an equal opportunity to work is vital. The executive order will help prevent discrimination against veterans and people with disabilities by requiring that violations of labor and employment rights laws-such as the Americans with Disabilities Act, Vietnam Era Veterans’ Readjustment Assistance Act and Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act-be among the considerations taken into account by the federal government in its contracting process.”

Overall, the action will help protect taxpayers, law-abiding businesses, and the more than one-in-five Americans employed by companies that do business with the federal government.  These final regulations will allow contracting agencies to begin implementing the order and identify companies with egregious violations. They can then be held accountable for amending their procedures before they receive any future contracts.

In supporting this action by the President, Gillums also noted that there have been recent Congressional efforts to undermine the order with the inclusion of provisions in the House and Senate National Defense Authorization bills to exclude Department of Defense contracts-which account for approximately two thirds of government contracts-from coverage under the order. Lawmakers in both houses and the Obama Administration are now working to ensure that this language is removed from the final version of the legislation during conference committee. “For the sake of Paralyzed Veterans members who are seeking employment with federal contractors, I sincerely hope that this language will be struck from the defense bill,” Gillums concluded.

The final regulations will be effective on October 25, 2016, and be implemented in phases to give contractors time to understand their responsibilities. The final guidance is available at: https://www.federalregister.gov/articles/2016/08/25/2016-19678/guidance-fair-pay-and-safe-workplaces. The final regulations are available at: https://www.federalregister.gov/articles/2016/08/25/2016-19676/federal-acquisition-regulation-fair-pay-and-safe-workplaces

 

August Washington Update

 

August 19, 2016                                                               Volume 22, No. 8

***PRIORITY***

The Government Relations staff is still looking for stories about problems that our members have experienced during air travel.  Please visit www.AirAccess30.org and share your story. 

Presidential Campaigns Wrap-up Nominating Conventions

The House and Senate recessed in mid-July to accommodate the Republican and Democratic National Conventions held over the last two weeks of July.  The Republican National Convention (RNC) was held the first week after recess in Cleveland, OH.  During the convention, Donald Trump and Mike Pence were formally nominated as the Republican candidates for the President and Vice President.  The Democratic National Convention (DNC) was held the following week in Philadelphia, PA.  During the DNC, Hillary Clinton and Senator Tim Kaine were formally nominated as the Democratic candidates for President and Vice President.

The conventions also included approval of the official party platforms for the Republican and Democratic parties.  Both platforms recommit to America’s sacred trust to veterans, they expound at length the heroic character of our service members, and regrettable consequences that befall them and their families.  Where their similarities diverge is in each party’s perception of primary problems and the corresponding plans to address them.  The full RNC platform can be accessed at:  https://gop.com/platform/.  The full DNC platform can be accessed at:  https://www.demconvention.com/platform/.

The RNC platform denounces the wait-time scandals concerning VA.  In response to these controversies, Republicans seek accountability of senior leadership and fundamental changes to their structure.  Regarding veterans’ health care, Republicans will seek to consolidate VA’s existing community care authorities to make a single program.  In order to combat bureaucratic stagnancy, they encourage VA partnerships with private enterprises, VSOs and competitive bidding, predicting such work will allow for high quality VA care, reduce backlogs, and save resources.  Additionally, Republicans will retain veterans’ preference, support a broader range of options for health care, including faith-based programs to respond to the opioid crisis, and encourage private sector and public school hiring of veterans.

The Democrats, equally enraged by VA scandals, propose fully resourcing VA to meet the needs of all veterans and reject attempts at privatization.  The platform emphasizes the need for more education benefits and job training, preservation of the post-9/11 GI Bill, and fair treatment of reservists and Guard members.  They recommit to ending chronic homelessness and suicide.  Regarding veterans’ health care, they emphasize veteran-centric care, resources for military sexual trauma (MST), the growth of mental health programs, treatment of invisible and toxic wounds and the expansion of the VA Caregiver Program to veterans of all eras. They seek to provide women with full and equal treatment, including reproductive health services. The DNC platform also proposes workplace policies that are more equitable for caregivers, as well as the expansion of a well-paid home care workforce and increased access to long-term care. They disfavor the deportation of immigrants who are veterans, while also highlighting the housing crisis for veterans in Indian Country.

The only identical policy proposal from both parties, aside from vaguely ensuring high quality health care and benefits for veterans (achieved differently), is a commitment to veterans treatment courts to prioritize rehabilitation over incarceration.

The respective platforms also offer views on some disability policy, albeit with slightly different inflections. The Republican platform highlighted the GOP’s historic support of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the role of Republican leadership in the enactment of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), ABLE Act and the Steve Gleason Act.  WIOA was the first major overhaul of the nation’s workforce system in almost 20 years while the ABLE Act was a measure that lets people with disabilities maintain access to services while saving to develop assets.  The Gleason law bears the name of former NFL player Steve Gleason who developed ALS.  The law provides access to speech-generating devices. To encourage entrepreneurship, the platform endorsed opening the Small Business Administration’s 8(a) certification program to people with disabilities, something that PVA has long supported.  The platform continued the party’s opposition to embryonic stem cell research and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.  Social Security was addressed largely from the perspective of reforms needed to the retirement system with Republicans calling for “all options,” other than tax increases, to be considered for modernizing this important social insurance program.

The Democratic platform addressed a number of issues important to individuals with disabilities including affirmation of support for the ADA and promises to expand access to appropriate accommodations and supports people with disabilities need to live in integrated community settings. The party endorsed policies that would bring to an end sub-minimum wage work, improve the lives of caregivers of people with disabilities, increase federal funding for affordable housing for low-income families, people with disabilities, veterans and the elderly, improve access to meaningful and gainful employment for people with disabilities and vowed to continue to fight for ratification of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

In sections of the platform concerning restoration of the full protections of the Voting Rights Act (VRA), the Democrats highlight support for full funding of the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) to ensure that all registration materials, voting materials, polling places, and voting machines are fully accessible to seniors and Americans with disabilities.  With regard to Social Security, the platform opposes efforts to cut or privatize the program or raise the retirement age and supports improvements to the cost-of-living formula that better reflects the fixed expenses of seniors and people with disabilities. The party also proposes measures to ensure the long term solvency of Social Security by asking those earning above $250,000, a year to contribute more to the system and to provide sufficient financial support to the Social Security Administration to ensure it can provide timely benefits and high quality services to all beneficiaries.

Ultimately, the platforms only serve as a guide for the two parties during the course of the political campaigns with the goal to influence the policy positions of the major party candidates.  However, the presidential candidates are not obligated to adopt the platform proposals.  During next month’s Washington Update, we will highlight the individual candidates’ policies directed towards veterans and people with disabilities.

PVA Attends VA Joint Symposium: Safeguarding the Integrity of GI Bill Benefit

On August 3, 2016, VA and the Deputy Under Secretary for Economic Opportunity, Curtis Coy, hosted a joint symposium to address VA’s enforcement of its consumer protection authorities to protect veterans from dishonest schools.  VA has faced considerable criticism for failing to take action against predatory for-profit colleges targeting veterans and service members.  Current law calls for VA to cease distribution of federal funds when it finds that a school is employing aggressive, deceptive or fraudulent recruiting practices in order to get access to the lucrative GI Bill and Defense Department Tuition Assistance.  So far, however, VA has taken relatively few enforcement steps despite numerous reports of deceptive behavior.

PVA and its VSO partners discussed the various legal authorities VA has at its disposal and advocated for greater enforcement efforts against such schools.  We also encouraged VA to develop a support structure for veterans who have already been harmed by these schools or are otherwise forced to try and transfer into a different school to continue their education.

PVA Conducts Survey to Support Access Committee Work

In May, PVA was notified that Lee Page, Senior Associate Advocacy Director, was selected to be a member of the Access Advisory Committee on Accessible Air Transportation overseen by the Department of Transportation (DOT).  The Committee is comprised of representatives from the disability community as well as the airline industry.  During its first meeting, the ACCESS Committee selected PVA to chair the workgroup evaluating the need for accessible lavatories on board aircraft.

In order to assist the ACCESS Committee, PVA recently conducted a survey/poll to disability stakeholders addressing seven questions that gauge their expectations for an accessible lavatory on a new single aisle aircraft. The poll was conducted over a three week period, with final results being collected on August 1, 2016. During that time period, 931 total respondents and 515 PVA members registered their opinions.  We were particularly pleased with the response rate—8 percent—to the survey (industry standards consider 3 percent response rate to any survey to be good).

The overall results show that current lavatories are too small and more space is needed. The other significant take away was the lack of ability to get to the lavatory.  Many respondents indicated that they were not aware of on board wheelchairs and had trouble getting the assistance needed to obtain them or their personal assistive devices.  Additionally, airline personnel need more training in order to assist passengers throughout the process.

Review of AirAccess30.org Website

With the www.AirAccess30.org website now having been live for six months, we have analyzed visitor traffic on the site.  In the first six months, there have been approximately 3,200 total visits to the website and approximately 2,700, unique visits.  While visits to the website decreased during April and May, there was a significant increase in June and July.  Some of this can be attributed to more awareness from PVA members as they traveled to our Annual Convention in May and to the significant number of athletes who traveled to the National Veterans’ Wheelchair Games in June and July.  Additionally, the time spent on the website during each visit increased significantly during June and July.  The website currently includes 39 individual stories with additional stories that will be posted soon.  We will continue to promote the website widely leading up to the 30th anniversary of the Air Carrier Access Act signing in October and carrying into the new Congress next year.

Election Assistance Commission Focused on Security for Elections

The U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC) was established by the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) in 2002.  The EAC is an independent, bipartisan commission charged with developing guidance to meet HAVA requirements, adopting voluntary voting system guidelines, and serving as a national clearinghouse of information on election administration.  The EAC is currently working with all levels of government to facilitate the conversation regarding securing the election process and to support election officials’ efforts to provide an accessible and secure voting process. Since the creation of its Voting System Testing and Certification Program, in partnership with the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the EAC has led in ensuring voting systems brought to the market have been vigorously tested against security standards.  Voting systems certified by the EAC are not connected to the Internet. Further, the EAC has worked with local and state election officials—as well as election stakeholders, from accessibility experts to scientists and academics—to ensure that best practices are shared nationwide.  These best practices include pre-election testing, security, continuity planning, and post-election audits.  Already this year, the EAC has conducted a series of events related to the #BeReady16 initiative, and more are underway and planned, including activities addressing Election Security Preparedness. Voters are encouraged to get involved with their state and local election officials, and ask questions about their election process. The vast majority of election offices offer numerous opportunities for voters to engage in the process, including witnessing pre-election testing of the voting systems.  Election officials welcome voters’ questions and

participation because they want voters to have confidence and to participate in the process. The EAC also encourages voters to work at the polls as election workers. The election process benefits from full engagement from all people, and election administrators across the country are seeking election workers now for November.  With 50 days before the deadline to mail ballots to military and overseas voters, the EAC is working with all stakeholders to lead discussions productively so that voters can have the utmost confidence in the election process.

For more questions about accessible voting, contact PVA Senior Associate Advocacy Director Lee Page.

July Washington Update

 

July 19, 2016                                                                    Volume 22, No. 7

***PRIORITY***

The Government Relations staff is still looking for stories about problems that our members have experienced during air travel.  Please visit www.AirAccess30.org and share your story. 

Commission on Care Releases Report

On July 6, 2016, the Commission on Care formally released its report on the future of veterans’ health care.  The Commission was originally established by the “Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act of 2014.”  The report contains 18 major recommendations.  The most notable recommendations include establishment of an integrated health care network to expand access to care.  This recommendation mirrors in many ways previous recommendations of The Independent Budget—co-authored by PVA, DAV, and VFW—as well as the current community care consolidation plan that the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) unveiled last fall.

The Commission also recommended a governance board to oversee the planning, policy and implementation of a new veterans’ health care system.  While this idea seems intriguing, it does not contemplate the biggest challenges of a new governance structure.  Specifically, this board would actually be more politically driven than current VA leadership due to the mechanism for selecting board members (appointed by House and Senate leadership).  Additionally, the Commission did not rationalize the interaction between the Veterans Health Administration and the Veterans Benefits Administration and how that would be impacted by this new governance structure.

The greatest concern PVA has with the Commission report is the recommendation regarding “choice.”  The report calls for allowing veterans the choice of primary provider within the new integrated health care networks.  However, it does not consider the impact that giving more veterans expanded choice will have on the current VA health care system and specifically specialized services, such as spinal cord injury and disease care.  The Commission analysis suggests that as much as 40 percent more care will move into the community under this proposal.

PVA also expressed other concerns with the Commission report.  We will be providing our detailed analysis for a House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs hearing on the Commission report in September.  PVA’s initial response to this report can be found at www.pva.org.  The full report can be viewed at https://commissiononcare.sites.usa.gov/.

PVA Testifies at House VA Committee Legislative Hearing

On June 23, 2016, the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs conducted a hearing to review several key bills, to include a major appeals reform measure.  Associate Executive Director of Government Relations Carl Blake testified on behalf of PVA.  The majority of the discussion focused on the ongoing work to modernize the claims appeals process.  After numerous all-day sessions and subsequent negotiations over the last few months between the VA and veterans service organizations, Representative Dina Titus (D-NV) introduced legislation—H.R. 5083, the “VA Appeals Modernization Act of 2016”—that reflected the changes the groups have agreed upon.

Additionally, PVA offered comments on legislation that would presumably make it easier for veterans with severe Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) to receive a service dog through the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).  While PVA supports the concept in principle, we offered a number of concerns about the implementation of this proposal that could further complicate efforts to provide service animals to all eligible veterans.  The full PVA statement is available at www.pva.org.

Subsequent to this hearing, House VA Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-FL) introduced legislation—H.R. 5620, the “VA Accountability First and Appeals Modernization Act”—that included H.R. 5083 as well as significant provisions addressing accountability across the VA.  PVA offered support for Chairman Miller’s bill.

Senate VA Committee Conducts Legislative Hearing

On June 29, 2016, the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs conducted a hearing to consider several health care and benefits legislative proposals.  The Committee did not consider any bills that were particularly controversial.  PVA generally supported all of the bills (with minor exceptions) that were discussed during the hearing.  The full PVA statement for the record is available at www.pva.org.

Senate Fails to Approve Appropriations Conference Report That Includes Funding for IVF for Veterans, Capacity Reporting Provisions

On June 28, 2016, the Senate voted against the conference report for approved H.R. 2577, an appropriations omnibus bill that included the “Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Appropriations Act for FY 2017.”  This bill included three important provisions for PVA and its members.  First, it provides direct funding for the provision of procreative services, specifically in vitro fertilization.  Second, it includes a provision to permanently reinstate the annual capacity reporting requirement for VA’s specialized services (the number one legislative priority for PVA).  Third, it provides for beneficiary travel to non-service connected catastrophically disabled veterans who are receiving in-patient care or who receive temporary lodging during the course of their care.  The House approved its conference report the week before the July 4th recess, including these provisions.  The Senate rejected the bill due to concerns about Zika funding that House and Senate leadership attached to the appropriations bill.

House Appropriations Committee Approves Amendment that Could Undermine IVF Treatment for Veterans and Service Members

On July 13, 2016, Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD), introduced an amendment during the markup for the Labor-HHS appropriations bill.  The amendment would only allow federal funds to provide IVF so long as all embryos made in the process were stored indefinitely. Such a requirement makes the provision of IVF at the Department of Defense (DOD), and potentially in the future at VA, wholly untenable.

The American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM), the organization that represents over 8,000 American fertility specialists says the Harris amendment directly contradicts the best clinical practices and would deny access to care.  Unfortunately, Rep. Harris used his position as a doctor (an anesthesiologist) to validate his position and many of the members of the Committee accepted his views as expert.  The amendment was ultimately agreed to 29-21, with one Democrat voting for it and one Republican voting against it.

PVA will work to prevent the amendments inclusion in the senate companion or in a possible omnibus appropriations bill.  This amendment, while seemingly benign, is an intentional barrier to care and would undermine the existing IVF services at DOD and prevent any future services through VA.

Government Relations Hosts Hill Briefing on ACAA

On June 17, 2016, the Government Relations Department hosted a Congressional briefing on Capitol Hill for House and Senate staff members to discuss the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) and the work we are doing to improve the law.  The briefing was moderated by PVA Executive Director, Sherman Gillums, PVA Associate General Counsel for Corporate and Government Relations Heather Ansley, and Senior Associate Advocacy Director Lee Page participated in the panel.  The panel also included representatives from the disability community who are partnering with us on the ACAA initiative.  Nearly 70 congressional staff members attended.

Advocacy Staff Attends ADA Symposium

During the week of June 20, 2016, the National Advocacy Program staff—Lee Page, Susan Prokop, and Heather Ansley—attended the National ADA Symposium in Denver, CO.  The symposium provides attendees from around the nation with an opportunity to learn about the latest developments in the ADA.  Sessions focused on issues such as access to stadiums, employment, outdoor recreation, service animals, and voting.  The event provides an opportunity to network with disability community advocates from all over the United States.

The symposium kicked off with John Register, Associate Director for Community and Veterans Programs for the U.S. Paralympics.  Following the opening session, participants had the opportunity to attend 8 of over 70 breakout sessions over a three day period.  Information shared at these sessions included updates from key officials in charge of enforcing the ADA.  At the session presented by the Department of Justice, officials noted that for the first time the Department has no backlog of ADA complaints due in part to the initiation of an online complaint process.

Next year’s symposium will be held in Chicago May 14-17th. More information is available at: www.adasymposium.org.

Lee Page, Senior Associate Advocacy Director, Visits Boeing Manufacturing Facility

Following the completion of the ADA Symposium, PVA Senior Associate Advocacy Director Lee Page participated in a meeting at the headquarters of Boeing manufacturing in Seattle, Washington.  He participated in this briefing as a member of the Access Committee being overseen by the Department of Transportation.  Lee is the Chairman of the Subcommittee charged with reviewing onboard lavatories on airlines.  During the presentation at Boeing, he and his colleagues on the Access Subcommittee were able to tour Boeing aircraft to understand the accessible lavatories and interior design of the aircraft to support those lavatories and onboard wheelchairs used to access the lavatory (not the aisle chair).  This meeting is meant to help inform the recommendations that the Access Committee will ultimately make to DOT on this issue.

FAA Extension Includes Disability-Related Provisions

After efforts to pass a long-term FAA reauthorization stalled, the House and Senate moved forward with an extension of the current authorization which was set to expire on July 15. This extension will expire in September 2017 setting up another opportunity in the next Congress to ensure that any reauthorization addresses the problems encountered by people with disabilities in air travel.

In a victory for PVA’s advocacy on this issue, the extension included two disability-related provisions. Section 2107 would require the Government Accountability Office (GAO) within 270 days of enactment to submit a report to Congress regarding air carrier personnel and contractor training programs, including variations among policies between carriers, how frequently since 2005 the Department of Transportation has requested corrective action following reviewing a training policy, and the action taken by the carrier in response. After the report is issued, the Department must develop and disseminate to air carriers best practices necessary to improve training policies.

Section 2108 would require the Department of Transportation to issue specific pending Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) regulations within one year of enactment. These regulations include accessible lavatories on single aisle aircraft, seating accommodations, and service animals. PVA is currently serving on a negotiated rulemaking that is seeking to develop a consensus rule on the definition of service animals and accessible lavatories on single aisle aircraft, as well as accessible in-flight entertainment and communications.

PVA will continue to work to include disability-related provisions in next year’s FAA reauthorization. Specifically, we will seek to strengthen ACAA enforcement by amending the statute to include specific protections and a private right of action. We will also advocate to ensure that airplanes are designed to accommodate people with disabilities and that airlines must acquire planes that meet broad accessibility standards.

House Judiciary Committee Approves ADA Notification Bill

On July 7, 2016, the House Judiciary Committee passed H.R. 3765, the “ADA Education and Reform Act of 2016,” as amended. This legislation, sponsored by Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX) would require a person with a disability to give notice to a public accommodation of an architectural barrier under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prior to filing a lawsuit. During the committee markup, its supporters portrayed the legislation as necessary to protect the ADA and ensure access.

Notification laws put the onus on the person with a disability to find ADA violations and notify a public accommodation of those violations. Instead of protecting and promoting the ADA, this legislation would actually force veterans and all people with disabilities to wait in line for access to restaurants, grocery stores, and other places of public accommodation. Covered entities should continuously evaluate their businesses for appropriate access under the ADA and not wait to receive a notification before acting to make them fully accessible.

Prior to passage, the legislation was amended to remove penalties for individuals who send a demand letter or other pre-suit notification that fails to include specific information as enumerated by the legislation as introduced.  However, the notification requirement itself would still impose yet another barrier to full access for people with disabilities.  PVA is on the record as being strongly opposed to this legislation.  National Advocacy staff previously met with the International Council of Shopping Centers, a key supporter of H.R. 3765, to express our concerns.  Unfortunately, those concerns were not heeded by many of the members of the House Judiciary Committee.

Royal Caribbean Guest Advisory Board on Disabilities Meets

In July, Susan Prokop, Senior Associate Advocacy Director, attended the recent meeting of Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. (RCL) Guest Advisory Board on Disabilities.  The Advisory Board received updates on the company’s efforts to make its guest programs and services accessible to all people with disabilities. Royal Caribbean staff also announced that the cruise line will receive the first award from Autism Speaks for being an “autism friendly” business.

The advisory board received presentations about the accessibility features of RCL’s wellness and spa programs as well as services offered by the Celebrity brand’s Consumer Outreach department.  Of particular interest to the board was a discussion led by Grant Van Ulbrich, RCL’s Director of Diversity and Inclusion, about the company’s recruitment and hiring efforts directed at people with disabilities. RCL is the first cruise line to establish a diversity and inclusion division and has implemented many best practices that have been identified over the years for disability recruitment, hiring and retention.

 

 

June’s Washington Update

June 14, 2016                                                                   Volume 22, No. 6

***PRIORITY***

The Government Relations staff is still looking for stories about problems that our members have experienced during air travel.  Please visit www.AirAccess30.org and share your story. 

Senate VA Committee Conducts Legislative Hearing

On May 24, 2016, the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs conducted a hearing to consider several health care and benefits legislative proposals.  PVA Associate Executive Director of Government Relations Carl Blake testified at the hearing.  The key bills considered during the hearing included S. 2896, the “Care Veterans Deserve Act of 2016,” a bill introduced by Senator John McCain (R-AZ), that would make permanent the VA Choice Program; the “Veterans Mobility Safety Act of 2016” (the companion to H.R. 3471); and, appeals reform legislation.

PVA’s comments were principally focused on S. 2896 and on the draft appeals reform bill.  Our historical experience and extensive interaction with veterans around the country leads us to confidently conclude that veterans prefer to receive their care from the VA.  This point was affirmed from a recent survey of our members gauging their experience with VA health care.  Our testimony emphasized that VA’s specialized services, particularly spinal cord injury care, cannot be adequately duplicated in the private sector.   We also explained that we believe that reform of veterans’ health care is based on the false assumption that the Choice Program as currently implemented is the best way forward for VA health care (the underlying plan of S. 2896).  We explained that the consolidation plan that the VA unveiled late last year sets a better benchmark for the appropriate path forward.  Additionally, PVA, along with our partners in The Independent Budget—DAV and VFW—previously presented to the Committee a framework for VA health care reform that builds on the VA’s own plan.  It includes a comprehensive set of policy ideas that will make an immediate impact on the delivery of care, while laying out a long-term vision for a sustainable, high-quality, veteran-centered health care system.

Our comments also highlighted the significant work done in the last couple of months to reform VA’s benefits appeals process.  In March, the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA), the Board of Veterans Appeals, and major VSO’s partnered to form a working group with the goal of reforming the appeals process.  Currently, the number of pending appeals has surpassed 440,000.  If the process is not reformed, VA projects that the appeals inventory will climb to over two million over the course of the next decade.  Ten years from now, if the system remains unchanged, veterans will expect to wait six years for a decision.

PVA is encouraged by VA’s ambitious efforts to achieve reform.  VA has recognized that VSO’s have specific concerns and has worked with us to find solutions that move us forward without diluting veterans’ rights in the process.  With this in mind, we support the general framework of this legislation.  However, we offered a few specific recommendations that we believe could improve the draft bill.  Additionally, that before a reform plan can be implemented it is imperative that VA answers the question of how to deal with the current appeals inventory.  Congress must also provide adequate resources to carry out this reform plan and support efforts to reduce the current backlog.

The full PVA statement is available at www.pva.org.

Senate Appropriations Bill Includes Funding for IVF for Veterans, Capacity Reporting Provisions; House Bill Does Not

On May 19, 2016, the Senate approved H.R. 2577, an appropriations omnibus bill that included the “Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Appropriations Act for FY 2017.”  This bill included two important provisions.  First, it provides direct funding for the provision of procreative services, specifically in vitro fertilization (IVF).  Second, it includes a provision to permanently reinstate the annual capacity reporting requirement for VA’s specialized services (the number one legislative priority for PVA).  These issues reflect two of the highest priorities for PVA.

Our work on reinstatement of the capacity reporting requirement for VA’s specialized services has been bolstered by the recent introduction of S. 2883 and H.R. 5091, the “Appropriate Care for Disabled Veterans Act.”  Sarah Dean, PVA Associate Legislative Director, has been leading the effort to build bipartisan support for these two bills.

Similarly, PVA has worked tirelessly to make procreative services, particularly IVF, available to veterans with service-connected catastrophic disabilities that preclude their ability to conceive children.  This provision received strong bipartisan support when it was considered by the full Senate Appropriations Committee.  We have joined with a broad coalition of veterans’ service organizations to fight to retain the procreative services provisions in the final appropriations bill.

The House approved its appropriations bill the same day that the Senate complete its work.  Unfortunately, the House version does not include these two important provisions.  We will be reaching out to our members for support as these two bills are considered in conference.

Rep. McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) Introduces Veterans Proposal Based on CVA Plan

On June 7, 2016, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA), Republican Conference Chair, introduced the “Care for Our Heroes for the 21st Century Act.”  This bill essentially puts into legislative form the proposal released by Concerned Veterans for America, a political front group, that would essentially undermine the existing VA and ultimately push veterans to seek care in the private sector.

PVA expressed serious concerns about the draft bill in a press release.  Specifically, the premium support model offered in Congresswoman McMorris Rodgers bill would clearly disadvantage catastrophically disabled and low-income veterans who currently have little to no cost share to receive care in the VA.  Additionally, the bill provides no mechanism to ensure veterans care is properly coordinated and that they receive the most appropriate care they need.  The proposal forces veterans to fend for themselves in the private sector health care system and leaves them with the responsibility of being the stewards of taxpayers’ money.  Perhaps worst of all, the bill does not contemplate the fact that the private sector is not better positioned to provide the care veterans need, and in many cases is substantially worse, particularly for veterans with catastrophic disabilities like spinal cord injury and disease.

Subsequent to our press release, the proponents of this plan—Concerned Veterans of America (CVA)—released a statement criticizing PVA’s views on the bill.  To be clear, CVA misrepresents itself as a veterans’ service organization when in fact it is a political activist organization whose underlying goal is to decrease the size of the federal government.

PVA responded to CVA by outlining a long list of questions that we originally raised when they were promoting this proposal nearly two years ago.  Unfortunately, they have yet to properly address any of the specific concerns that were raised.

To read PVA’s press releases, please visit www.pva.org.

PVA Participates in Veterans Jobs Caucus Briefing

On May 24, 2016, Shelly Stewart, PVA’s Director of PAVE (Paving Access to Veterans Employment), participated in a congressional briefing with the Veterans Jobs Caucus.  The Caucus is co-chaired by Rep. Jeff Denham (R-CA), Rep. Tim Walz (D-MN), Senator Mark Kirk (R-IL), and Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV).  The discussion focused on issues being faced by military families and caregivers in the employment market place.  Shelly was able to distinguish PVA as an organization that is providing direct employment services not only to veterans but to their caregivers as well.

House May Punt on Passage of FAA Reauthorization Bil

As previously reported, the Senate approved an amended version of H.R. 636, the “Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Reauthorization Act of 2016,” in April.  This bill reflects a number of key provisions related to the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA).  The Senate-approved bill includes:

  1. Study on airport accessibility best practices.
  2. Study on in-cabin wheelchair restraint systems.
  3. Report on training policies regarding assistance for persons with disabilities.
  4. Establishment of an advisory committee for the air travel needs of passengers with disabilities.

Inclusion of these provisions in the final bill would be a major legislative accomplishment for PVA.  Unfortunately, it appears that the House may seek to pass an extension pushing the FAA reauthorization to the next Congress.

Airline Consumer Protection Bill Includes Disability Provisions

While the debate over the FAA Reauthorization remains unclear, Rep. Mike Thompson (D-CA) has introduced an airline consumer protection bill that includes the disability provisions from the Senate’s version of the FAA. This legislation, the “Airline Consumer Protection Act” (H.R. 5291), includes a variety of consumer protection provisions such as increased transparency on fees and improved access to broad consumer protection information.  The bill also includes the PVA-supported disability provisions that are currently being considered in the FAA Reauthorization.

Access Committee Begins Negotiations

The Department of Transportation (DOT) Regulations Negotiation (Reg-Neg) Access Committee held its first meeting in Washington, DC on May 17 and 18.  The first day was dedicated to understanding and agreeing to the rules governing how the 25-member Access Committee will operate.  Subcommittees were formed to address whether or not to change the definition of a service animal, including emotional support animal; how to provide in-flight entertainment or communication; and whether it is feasible for new single aisle aircraft to provide an accessible lavatory.

Each subcommittee has formed working groups made up of Access Committee members and other interested parties to begin addressing the complex issues from the point of view of the airlines, airplane manufacturers, and disability rights activists.  Each working group has 3 co-chairs representing the three points of view.  Lee Page, PVA Senior Associate Advocacy Director, was named co-chair of the working group discussing accessible lavatories.  They are currently working on a brief survey of stakeholders and passengers with disabilities to help the Access Committee develop the definition of what would properly reflect an “accessible lavatory” for a single aisle aircraft.  All of the working groups will meet by conference calls over the next six months and report back to the Access Committee during each monthly meeting through October 2016.

After the “rules of procedure” were established, the Committee received presentations on each of the three main focus areas.  The Department of Justice (DOJ) discussed definition of a service animal under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), versus the definition considered under the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA).  DOJ defines a service animal as a “dog or in some cases a small horse,” and it does not recognize emotional support animals.  Boeing and Airbus provided presentations on what is currently available on the market for an accessible lavatory on board aircraft.  Accessible lavatories are mainly used in twin aisle (wide body) aircraft, as required by the ACAA.  Finally, the National Center for Accessible Media discussed in-flight entertainment and communications for people with disabilities.

PVA Defends Fair Housing Rule

In May, during Senate consideration of the FY 2017 appropriations bill for the Departments of Transportation and Housing and Urban Development, Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) and others introduced an amendment to prohibit HUD from implementing or enforcing its “Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing” (AFFH) rule. Issued last year, this rule contained long-awaited guidance and data intended to help state and local governments connect housing and community development dollars to neighborhood opportunities for people with housing challenges, including people with disabilities. Each year, over 50% of all reported complaints of housing discrimination are initiated by people with disabilities. HUD’s AFFH rule aims to assist state and local governments in identifying strategies and solutions to expand accessible and supportive housing choices for veterans and other individuals with disabilities.

PVA was among numerous organizations supporting fair housing to send a letter to all members of the Senate urging the defeat of the Lee amendment. Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) spoke against the amendment citing PVA’s letter and entering it into the record. Although the Lee amendment was ultimately defeated, concerns remain that a substitute provision could still impede the AFFH rule in matters related to zoning if it were to be included in a final appropriations bill. Action in the House on this funding bill is not expected to happen anytime soon and it may eventually wind up in a continuing resolution. However, PVA and its allies in the fair housing community will continue to monitor the evolution of the T-HUD appropriations to warn against efforts to undermine fair housing.

 

 

May’s Washington Update

May 17, 2016                                                                    Volume 22, No. 5

***PRIORITY***

The Government Relations staff is still looking for stories about problems that our members have experienced during air travel.  Please visit www.AirAccess30.org and share your story. 

Senate VA Committee Unveils Massive Omnibus Bill

On April 28, 2016, the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs introduced a comprehensive bipartisan bill that would address a wide array of veterans’ health care and benefits issues.  PVA generally supports the provisions of the bill.  The bill reflects several high priorities for PVA.  We are particularly pleased that the VA would incrementally open the Comprehensive Family Caregiver Program to veterans of all eras (not just post-9/11).  The bill also includes a significant emphasis on accountability as well as provisions from the “Express Appeals Act,” which PVA played a significant role in developing.

PVA strongly supports the expansion of the Caregiver Program outlined in this bill.  Our members would benefit from the expansion of this program more than any other cohort of the veterans population.  Caregivers are the most critical component of rehabilitation and eventual recovery for veterans with a spinal cord injury or disease.

We also appreciate the emphasis on accountability across all of VA.  PVA believes that Secretary McDonald and Deputy Secretary Gibson want to hold bad employees at the VA accountable in the most appropriate fashion, but current law challenges that goal.  The bill does come up short of the level of accountability needed to address failures that goes well beyond just the senior executives of VA.

PVA has also been closely involved in work to improve the appeals process for veterans who have filed claims.  Last year, we began working with our partners in the veterans’ service organization community to develop the “Express Appeals Act.”  We are glad to see that work carried over into the provisions of the “Veterans First Act.”  However, the long-term prospect of inclusion of the appeals provisions is unclear due to the significant push the VA is making on larger VA appeals reform.

Despite the wide scope of this omnibus bill, more work remains to be done.  The House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs has already passed more than two dozen bills, many of which reflect provisions similar to the “Veterans First Act.”  We hope that the Senate will act on this bill soon so that the House and Senate Committees on Veterans Affairs can develop a final comprehensive bill to benefit veterans and their families.  Any final bill should address the challenges that many veterans still face when accessing health care and filing claims for benefits.

House VA Subcommittee Marks Up H.R. 3471, the “Veterans Mobility Safety Act”

On April 29, 2016, the House VA Subcommittee on Health marked up H.R. 3471, the “Veterans Mobility Safety Act.”  The revised bill includes significant language changes to address concerns brought by outside equipment dealers to PVA leadership.  Interestingly, NMEDA attempted to prevent passage of the bill with our proposed changes at the last minute, despite previously indicating that they would support our amended draft.  We have had a significant number of meetings with representatives from both sides of the business perspective in recent weeks.  It is clear that many companies are trying to modify the amended legislation to best position themselves in the marketplace.

As amended, the bill would now place the responsibility on the VA to develop safety certification standards for Adaptive Automobile Equipment (AAE).  The process of developing those standards would include industry representatives, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and most importantly, veterans’ service organizations.  Given the very high percentage of PVA members who rely upon AAE, we are well-positioned to represent the interests of veterans specifically, something the industry does not seem to have top-of-mind.

We anticipate that this legislation will be marked up soon by the full House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.  The prospect of success with this bill in the Senate remains unclear.

Capacity Reporting Legislation Introduced

On April 28, 2016, Senators Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and Pat Toomey (R-PA) introduced S. 2883, the “Appropriate Care for Disabled Veterans Act,” and Representatives Jeff Denham (R-CA) and Sean Patrick Maloney (D-NY) introduced the companion bill—H.R. 5091.  This bi-partisan legislation reinstates the requirement for the VA to report on its capacity to provide specialized services, to include spinal cord injury or disease, blinded care, mental health care, and long-term care.

The original reporting requirement expired in 2008.  Since that time, there have been continuous reports of bed closures, staffing shortages, and denied access to care.

This bill will ensure that VA can be held accountable for its mandated responsibility to care for those veterans with the most severe disabilities.  Additional cosponsors of the Senate legislation include Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), and Senator Bob Casey (D-PA).

We have reached out to all PVA chapters and members and encouraged them to contact their senators and representatives to ask them to support this bill.  Government Relations staff is also working on increasing the numbers of co-sponsors as well as getting the bill on an upcoming hearing agenda for consideration.  We continue to provide updates as this effort progresses.

Senate Appropriations Bill Includes Funding for IVF for Veterans

On April 14, 2016, the Senate Appropriations Committee passed an amendment to H.R. 4974, the “FY 2017 Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and Military Construction Appropriations Act” that would allow the VA to cover the cost of procreative services, including in vitro fertilization (IVF), for veterans who sustained a service-connected reproductive injury. Currently, the Department of Defense (DOD) provides IVF for injured active duty service members while VA is explicitly prohibited from doing so. This amendment would authorize funding totaling $88 million to VA to provide IVF in fiscal year 2017, and 2018.  We will also continue our work to make procreative services permanently part of the medical benefits package of VA.

PVA has long advocated that VA provide procreative services as part of the medical care benefits package. While this is a critical step forward, the amendment must still pass the full Senate. The amendment, put forward by Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), passed the Senate Appropriations Committee by a vote of 23-7 with bipartisan support.

PVA Participates in DOT Focus Group on Seating Accommodations in Air Travel

On May 3, 2016, PVA participated in a Department of Transportation (DOT) sponsored focus group on seating accommodations in air travel.  DOT announced last December that it was convening focus groups to develop training modules addressing the top areas of complaint received from passengers with disabilities in air travel. Between December 2015, and May 2016, DOT held four separate focus groups comprised of airline representatives and consumers with disabilities. The topics addressed were (1) wheelchair and guide assistance at airports and on aircraft; (2) transport of wheelchairs and other mobility aids in aircraft; (3) travel with service animals; and (4) accessible aircraft seating accommodations. The purpose of these focus groups was to develop training materials for use by airline personnel and their contractors. Additional materials will be developed for passengers with disabilities.

Under the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA), an airline must provide a passenger who uses a service animal or has a fused or fixed leg with a bulkhead seat upon the passenger’s request. Passengers with other types of disabilities have expressed difficulty in accessing bulkhead seating as an accommodation.

The ACAA requires an airline to provide a passenger with a disability with a seat that meets his or her needs, if requested. Passengers with disabilities who have tickets in the same class of service as the bulkhead seats should have the opportunity to use those seats if needed as an accommodation unless they are requested by a service animal user or someone with a fused or fixed leg. Thus, if the passenger has a premium economy ticket and the bulkhead seat is in premium economy, then the bulkhead seat could be provided as an accommodation.

It is also important to know that if there is a fee for using a bulkhead seat or an aisle or window versus a middle seat, then the fee is waived as long as the needed seat is in the passenger’s class of service. For example, if the passenger has a standard economy ticket, and the aisle seat requested is in that class of service but has a $15 fee, then the fee would be waived.

Airlines stressed the importance of passengers with disabilities letting them know as early as possible what accommodations, if any, will be needed on a particular flight. This is especially important if the passenger books the flight through a third party. Unfortunately, communicating needs does not always result in having those needs met. Consequently, PVA is continuing to work with DOT and Congress to improve the air travel experience and enforcement mechanisms available under the ACAA.

Senate Approves FAA Reauthorization with Key Air Carrier Access Act Provisions Included

On April 19, 2016, the Senate approved an amended version of H.R. 636, the “Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Reauthorization Act of 2016.”  This bill reflects a number of key provisions related to the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) that were originally included in the Senate version of the FAA Reauthorization.  Advocacy staff worked very closely with the Committee staff and Senate leadership to get provisions related to the ACAA included in the bill.  The draft language includes:

  1. Study on airport accessibility best practices.
  2. Study on in-cabin wheelchair restraint systems.
  3. Report on training policies regarding assistance for persons with disabilities.
  4. Establishment of an advisory committee for the air travel needs of passengers with disabilities.

Inclusion of these provisions in the final bill would be a major legislative accomplishment for PVA.  It remains to be seen how the House will address these provisions because it has some larger fundamental disagreements with the Senate on other issues included in the FAA Reauthorization.

PVA Selected for Seat on Advisory Committee on Accessible Air Transportation

PVA was recently notified that Lee Page, Senior Associate Advocacy Director, has been selected to be a member of the Access Advisory Committee on Accessible Air Transportation overseen by the Department of Transportation (DOT).  The Committee is comprised of representatives from the disability community as well as the airline industry.  The Advisory Committee is tasked with reviewing current policy and directing new rule making in three areas:  whether to require accessible inflight entertainment (IFE) and strengthen accessibility requirements for other in-flight communications; whether to require an accessible lavatory on new single-aisle aircraft over a certain size; and whether to amend the definition of “service animals” that may accompany passengers with a disability on a flight.  The Committee will conduct its first face-to-face meeting on May 17, 2016.

 

 

April Washington Update

April 15, 2016                                                                   Volume 22, No. 4

***PRIORITY***

The Government Relations staff is still looking for stories about problems that our members have experienced during air travel.  Please visit www.AirAccess30.org and share your story.

Commission on Care Members Offer Strawman Proposal to Turn VA Health Care into a Payer Only; VSO’s Respond

The Commission on Care, established by P.L. 113-146, the “Veterans Access, Choice, and Accountability Act of 2014” (Choice Act), held a meeting on March 21-23, 2016.  The Commission is charged with examining access to care and strategically examining how best to organize the Veterans Health Administration, locate health care resources, and deliver health care to veterans during the next 20 years.  It has spent the last several months evaluating a comprehensive independent assessment and the testimony and recommendations of numerous entities, including VSO’s, health care organizations, information technology (IT) professionals, members of Congress and VA officials.  The Commission’s mandate requires a report to be submitted to the President by June of 2016.

With the report due in just two short months, seven Commissioners produced a strawman document for consideration that was presented at the March meeting.  The proposed statement concludes that “the current VA health care system is seriously broken, and because of the breadth and depth of the shortfalls, there is no efficient path to repair it.” The goal of the proposed plan is to transition all veterans into community care plans over the next 20 years.  No new VA facilities will be constructed or upgraded, and as facilities become under-utilized or obsolete, they will be shuttered.  “Over time, VA will become primarily a payer” providing care through the community system.

PVA joined other major VSO’s in writing a letter to the Commission expressing our grave concerns with entertaining proposals to eliminate the VA health care system.  While the Commission responded, indicating that this was merely a strawman and should not be construed as representing the views of the entire Commission, at this time there is no alternative proposed document for consideration.  Nor has the Commission indicated how it will formulate and agree upon the final report to be issued.  PVA and its VSO partners will present our views again at the next Commission meeting on April 18 and 19.

The Joint-VSO letter sent to the Commission can be viewed here:

http://www.pva.org/atf/cf/%7Bca2a0ffb-6859-4bc1-bc96-6b57f57f0391%7D/LEG_%202016%20JOINT%20VSO%20

LETTER%20TO%20THE%20COMMISSION%20ON%20CARE%20-%20MARCH%

2031,%202016.PDF

VA Brings VSO’s and Major Stakeholders Together in Attempt to Reform the Veterans Benefits Appeals Process

At the beginning of March, VA convened a three-day meeting with the goal of standing up a plan for comprehensive reform of the veterans’ benefits appeals process.  With the appeals backlog inventory hovering around 460,000, VA is seeking a true overhaul.  PVA was represented by our office at the Board of Veterans Appeals.  At the end of three days, the VA’s starting proposal evolved significantly as stakeholders dug in and used their experience and expertise to help shape it.  As it became clear that any reform would necessarily require overhauling the initial claims process as well, the group decided to sequester itself for two additional days and also incorporated intermittent conference calls.

With the Congressional calendar waning as we approach election season, the window of opportunity to pass legislation is closing.  While the VSO’s are eager to play a substantial part in any reform, there is consistent apprehension among participants who believe such comprehensive change requires more thorough consideration and scrutiny.  VA produced legislative language that represents the reform plan constructed by this working group.  It is currently being considered by the Senate as part of a pending omnibus bill which includes the VA health care reform package.  Similarly, the House Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs will be holding a hearing on April 28 specifically to address VA’s current legislative proposal.  PVA will testify alongside other VSO’s who participated in the process.  Because negotiations regarding certain aspects of this bill are ongoing, PVA has not taken a firm position at this time on whether we support the plan.  Additionally, it is unclear at this time as to whether adequate resources will be available to facilitate such a major change.

House VA Disability Assistance Subcommittee Considers Legislation to Pay Special Compensation to Veterans with Loss or Loss of Use of Creative Organs

On April 13, the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs held a hearing on pending legislation.  Carl Blake, Associate Executive Director of Government Relations, testified on behalf of PVA.  Of particular importance to PVA was H.R. 4892, a bill recently introduced by House VA Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-FL).  This bill would provide two lump-sum payments, totaling $20,000, to veterans with a loss or loss of use of a creative organ and are currently in receipt of special monthly compensation (k).

For years, PVA has advocated for Congress to lift the prohibition on VA’s ability to provide procreative services to veterans with a reproductive injury. H.R. 4892 seemingly attempts to work around the existing ban and provide veterans the option to seek services on their own. Last year, Chairman Miller introduced H.R. 2257, a bill that would actually lift the IVF ban at VA. The ideological opposition to repealing the ban moved Chairman Miller to introduce H.R. 4892.

While PVA supports H.R. 4892, we do not believe that this is the most appropriate solution for veterans who have lost the ability to conceive children.  PVA highlighted two issues that are not appropriately addressed in the proposed bill.  First, all reproductive services, to include IVF, adoption and surrogacy, should be part of the medical benefits package of the VA.  Second, the bill creates a potential inequity between men and women with these catastrophic injuries.  The average cost of one round of IVF is $10,000.  But for women veterans, whose injuries eliminate the ability to carry a pregnancy to term, IVF most often is not an option, and so they may rely upon a gestational surrogate or adoption. The average costs of surrogacy ($60,000-$120,000) and adoption ($15,000-$40,000) far exceed the proposed $20,000. This creates an inequity for women veterans that while unintended, would remain unaddressed.  PVA will continue to work to see that VA provide procreative services through the VA medical benefits package.  If a veteran has catastrophic reproductive injury due to their service, this nation then has a responsibility to make them whole.

To read PVA’s full written statement for the hearing, please visit www.pva.org.

Senate FAA Reauthorization Bill Includes Provisions Aimed at Problems Encountered by Travelers with Disabilities

PVA’s efforts to improve air travel for passengers with disabilities have resulted in disability-focused language in the Senate’s version of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Reauthorization currently pending on Capitol Hill.

As passed out of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, on March 16, the FAA reauthorization (S. 2658) includes four provisions, three of which derived from PVA-provided language, specifically addressing the needs of travelers with disabilities. Sections 3106, 3116, and 3117 require studies that will highlight areas for improvement and lead to the dissemination of best practices to improve airport accessibility and air carrier training policies, and a determination about the feasibility of using in cabin wheelchair restraint systems. Section 3118 requires the Secretary of Transportation to establish an advisory committee on the air travel needs of passengers with disabilities to advise the Secretary on implementation of the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA). The advisory committee will provide a forum to review the Department of Transportation’s efforts to implement and enforce the ACAA and provide suggestions for improvements to the air travel experience for people with disabilities.

On April 6, the FAA reauthorization was brought to the Senate floor under legislative vehicle H.R. 636. In response to requests from PVA, Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Ranking Member Bill Nelson (D-FL) filed an amendment that would require the Secretary of Transportation to refer ACAA complaints to the U.S. Attorney General in the case of pattern or practice of discrimination or if a traveler encounters disability-based discrimination that raises an issue of general public importance. The Attorney General would be able to pursue civil action in federal court and the court may provide equitable or other relief, including monetary damages to a harmed individual, or civil penalties. Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) also filed an amendment that would provide a private right of action under the ACAA.

At this time, it appears that neither of these amendments will receive a vote. However, we remain committed to fighting for improved ACAA enforcement. The Senate plans a final vote on the FAA reauthorization the week of April 18. Meanwhile, the House’s version of the FAA reauthorization (H.R. 4441) passed out of committee but has yet to be taken up by the full House. The House and Senate versions of the reauthorization differ significantly and much work remains to be done to ensure the disability provisions are retained in a final bill.  The current FAA authorization expires on July 15.

Department of Transportation Announces Decision to Move Forward on ACAA Negotiated Rulemaking

On April 7, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) announced that it would move forward with a negotiated rulemaking (Reg Neg) on three issues under the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA): (1) whether to require accessible in-flight entertainment and strengthen accessibility requirements for other in-flight communications; (2) whether to require an accessible lavatory on new single-aisle aircraft over a certain size; and (3) whether to amend the definition of service animals that many accompany passengers with a disability.

In December 2015, DOT announced its intent to explore the feasibility of conducting a Reg Neg on several issues, including those announced on April 7. The issues DOT elected not to address through a Reg Neg include access to in-flight medical oxygen, seating accommodations, and new airline reporting requirements. DOT has announced that it will address these issues through other means.

To conduct the Reg Neg, DOT is establishing the Accessible Air Transportation (ACCESS) Advisory Committee. This committee will include representatives from the disability community, airlines, and aircraft manufacturers. DOT is currently seeking nominations for the ACCESS Advisory Committee and the first meeting will be held on May 17-18.

Department of Justice Announces Historic Settlement with Greyhound for ADA Violations

Passengers with disabilities who encountered disability-related discrimination on Greyhound may be eligible for compensation.  On February 8, the Department of Justice announced a consent decree resolving a complaint against Greyhound for alleged violations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Allegations against Greyhound included failing to maintain accessibility features on buses, failing to provide assistance to passengers with disabilities, and failing to allow passengers using wheelchairs to complete reservations online. As a result of the consent decree, Greyhound will pay a civil fine, hire an ADA compliance manager, require employees and contractors who interact with the public to attend annual in-person ADA training, and complete other requirements to address the alleged violations.

Greyhound will also be required to compensate travelers with disabilities who experienced disability discrimination while traveling or attempting to travel on Greyhound. To be eligible for compensation, an individual must have a disability; have traveled or attempted to travel on Greyhound between February 8, 2013, and February 8, 2016; and have experienced a disability-related incident during travel or while attempting to travel. Examples of incidents include lack of accessible transportation and failure to make disability-related accommodations.

Individuals who believe they meet these requirements must submit a claim online, by email, or mail to Greyhound’s appointed claims administrator by November 10, 2016. Instructions regarding the claims process are available at: http://www.dojvgreyhoundsettlement.com.

PVA Submits Comments on Ticket to Work

On April 8, PVA submitted comments to an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPRM) concerning the Ticket to Work (TTW) Program operated by the Social Security Administration (SSA).  Ticket to Work was created as part of the “Ticket to Work and Work Incentives Improvement Act of 1999” and is intended to give beneficiaries of Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) greater choice in vocational rehabilitation options.  The ANPRM posed a series of questions concerning improvements that could be made to the Ticket program to encourage greater participation by beneficiaries in this return to work program, as well as a more diverse set of vocational providers.

PVA’s Paving Access to Veterans Employment (PAVE) program participates in Ticket to Work as a provider of employment and vocational services to clients in SSDI and SSI.  The experiences of the PAVE counselors served to inform a large part of PVA’s comments.  To read PVA’s comments, please visit the Advocacy program page at www.pva.org.

Social Security Caregiver Credit Act Introduced But Excludes Some Veterans’ Caregivers

In March, Senator Christopher Murphy (D-CT) introduced S. 2721, the “Social Security Caregiver Credit Act,” which is a companion bill to H.R. 3377 that was introduced by Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY) in 2015.  This legislation would allow people who provide at least 80 hours a month of unpaid assistance for a relative with disabilities to continue earning Social Security credits.  They would be able to continue earning these credits for up to five years.  For many caregivers of veterans, this legislation is particularly important because these credits are necessary to quality for Social Security retirement benefits.  Social Security retirement benefits are based upon a person’s earnings in the workplace.  These measures would count months spent as a caregiver as if they had been paid a wage.

Unfortunately, caregivers of post-9/11 veterans who participate in the VA’s Comprehensive Family Caregiver Program, established by the “Caregivers and Veterans Omnibus Health Services Act of 2010, will be ineligible for the credits under the proposed bills.  Participants in the VA Family Caregiver Program receive a modest stipend to help support their families as they attend to the needs of catastrophically disabled veterans.  Because the Murphy and Lowey bills specifically exclude anyone who receives compensation for caregiver services provided, veterans’ caregivers would not benefit from these proposed bills.  However, P.L. 111-363 specifically excluded counting the stipend for purposes of earnings credit under Social Security.  Thus, if S. 2721 or H.R. 3377 is enacted, post-9/11 veterans’ caregivers will be denied Social Security retirement credits under both programs.  PVA believes this inequity should be addressed and will be working with the sponsors and other interested policymakers to find a solution to rectify this problem.

Social Security Disability Insurance Reform Proposals Published

At an event in Washington, DC, in April, former Congressmen and Ways and Means Social Security Subcommittee Chairmen Earl Pomeroy (D-ND) and Jim McCrery (R-LA) released recommendations to improve the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) program and other services for workers with disabilities.  The recommendations are the culmination of the McCrery-Pomeroy SSDI Solutions Initiative—a multi-year effort to identify practical policy changes to improve SSDI and other services to better serve people with disabilities as well as those who pay into the program and the economy as a whole.

The recommendations headline a newly-released book, SSDI Solution:  Ideas to Strengthen the Social Security Disability Insurance Program, which features a diverse collection of 12 policy proposals written by different disability policy experts.  Reps. McCrery and Pomeroy’s recommendations, which come on the heels of recent legislation that postponed depletion of the SSDI trust fund until 2022, call on policymakers to seize this opportunity and use the additional time to make meaningful changes to the SSDI program.  They also propose that policymakers should pursue new ways to support workers and improve the lives of workers with disabilities while also testing various ideas to strengthen the efficiency, effectiveness and integrity of the current program.

“We share the sense of relief with many Americans that Congress was able to avert the automatic benefit cuts that would have accompanied trust fund depletion,” explained Chairman Pomeroy.  “But I think we can all agree that more should be done to improve this program as well as the lives of the many Americans living with a disability.  We hope our ideas and recommendations will inspire policymakers to pursue and adopt thoughtful and innovative changes to help this vital federal program and important population.”

Chairman McCrery emphasized, “Let’s not waste this opportunity by deluding ourselves that SSDI’s issues have been solved.”  He went on to say, “The program faces a financial shortfall again in 2022; but more importantly, it is clear the program isn’t serving the disabled population as well or as efficiently as it could be. We don’t think there is any one right idea, but by putting out a collection of ideas we hope to spark a conversation that would encourage policymakers to begin testing and enacting changes sooner rather than later.”

The 12 proposals in the book include changes to promote early intervention in order to keep more workers with disabilities in the workforce, improve program administration, address interactions with other programs, and pursue structural reforms. More information about the book, including how it can be purchased, can be found at http://www.SSDISolutions.org/book.

 

March Washington Update

March 16, 2016                                                               Volume 22, No. 3

***PRIORITY***

The Government Relations staff is still looking for stories about problems that our members have experienced during air travel. Please visit www.AirAccess30.org and share your story.

PVA Holds Annual Advocacy and Legislation Seminar

From February 29-March 3, the Government Relations Department conducted its annual Advocacy and Legislation Seminar. We had nearly 100 total attendees with one of the biggest participation rates we ever had. It also included quite a few new attendees as well.

The Seminar included a two-day training session that focused on the wide variety of issues being addressed by the National Advocacy and Legislative Programs. The Advocacy staff focused heavily on air travel and the Air Carrier Access Act, as well as Complex Rehabilitation Technology and voting. The Legislative staff focused on protection of specialized services and the need for reinstatement of the mandated capacity report, as well as procreative services, expansion of the VA Caregiver Program, and potential reform of the delivery of veterans’ health care. One of the major highlights of the week was the presentation of Fred Downs, PVA Prosthetics Consultant, on his military service in Vietnam and his subsequent 38 years of service in the VA’s Prosthetics Service.

The week concluded with the annual testimony of President Kovach and the Congressional Reception on Capitol Hill. House VA Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-FL) was presented with the 2016 Gordon H. Mansfield Congressional Leadership Award during the reception. Planning and changes to presentations for next year’s seminar are already under way.

Senate VA Committee Considers Choice Program Legislation

On March 15, 2016, the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs conducted a legislative hearing to examine four bills that could lead to permanent changes to the delivery of health care from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), as well as improve claims processing at the appeals level. The Committee considered S. 2633, the “Improving Veterans Access to Care in the Community Act,” and S. 2646, the “Veterans Choice Improvement Act of 2015,” as well as S. 2473, the “Express Appeals Act of 2016” and a draft bill that would make revisions to personnel policy for the Senior Executive Service at VA. PVA submitted a statement for the record on the proposed bills.

The most significant bills considered were S. 2633 and S. 2646. Both bills offer a vision of how VA will deliver care in the community going forward. While PVA generally supported many of the provisions of S. 2633, we expressed significant concerns about S. 2646. That bill would essentially make the current Choice Program permanent. Despite our reservations, it was disclosed by Committee Chairman Johnny Isakson (R-GA) at the beginning of the hearing that Senator Jon Tester (D-MT) and Senator Richard Burr (R-NC), the sponsors of the competing bills, have reached a compromise that combines elements of both bills. The language of the compromise bill has not been released yet, but we will provide a detailed update as soon as that information becomes available.

PVA also offered strong support for S. 2473, the “Express Appeals Act.” This legislation closely mirrors legislation that was recently approved in the House of Representatives—H.R. 677 (that includes H.R. 800)—that contains the same proposal. This legislation would expedite the appeals process at the Board of Veterans Appeals alleviating the pressure that comes from claims appeals that languish for several years. PVA worked with our partners in the veterans’ service organization community as well as with Congressional staff and the VA to develop the provisions of S. 2473.

To read PVA’s full written statement submitted for the Senate VA Committee hearing, please visit www.pva.org.

Senate VA Committee Reviews FY 2017 VA Budget Request

On February 23, 2016, the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs conducted a hearing to review the FY 2017 Budget Request for the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). PVA Associate Executive Director of Government Relations Carl Blake testified along with our partners in The Independent Budget—DAV and VFW.

The IB co-authors believe that the FY 2017 VA budget request is generally a good one. The Administration’s overall funding request closely mirrors the overall recommendations of the IB when taking into account the nearly $5.7 billion in Choice Act funds that they project to spend in FY 2017. However, we expressed serious concerns about the suddenly massive growth in expenditures in community care spending in FY 2017 totaling $12.2 billion. While we understand the need for leveraging community care to expand access to health care for many veterans, as discussed in The Independent Budget framework, we are troubled by the virtually uncontrolled growth in this area of VA health care spending projected going forward. PVA emphasized that although Congress and the Administration seem to be overly focused on pushing more care into the community, it is imperative that critical resources be devoted to expanding capacity and increasing staff within the existing health care system, particularly for specialized services such as spinal cord injury or disease, and not simply punt this responsibility into the private sector.

PVA also pointed out serious concerns with the FY 2017 advance appropriations, enacted last December in the “FY 2016 Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act.”   We believe that funding level is insufficient to meet the full demand for services veterans are placing on the system. For FY 2017, the IB recommends $72.8 billion for total Medical Care; however, Congress only approved $66.6 billion for total Medical Care. While the VA proposed a significant and necessary revision to its projected funding needs for FY 2017, there is no guarantee that Congress will act on these revisions. Failure to address these new funding needs could lead to yet another serious funding shortfall.

We are also astounded by the obviously insufficient recommendations for the FY 2018 advance appropriations. In fact, the VA even admitted that its recommendation is not likely sufficient. The Administration’s advance appropriation request for Medical Services in FY 2018, $54.3 billion, is woefully inadequate to meet continually growing demand for VA health care services. This even includes a $3.0 billion reduction in community care spending from FY 2017. The Administration appears to have ignored its responsibility to properly address the funding question for VA medical care in FY 2018, and appears poised to pass it on to a new Administration following this fall’s election. This is an unacceptable proposition.

To read PVA’s full written statement, please visit www.pva.org.

Air Carrier Access Act Legislative Work Advancing 

National Advocacy staff are currently negotiating with key offices in the Senate to advance legislation to amend the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA). Meanwhile, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Reauthorization includes several provisions that PVA and our partners in the disability community are advocating for. The draft FAA Reauthorization does not currently include our calls for a private right of action as this is the toughest issue to address from a political perspective. While we do not view this as the optimal way forward, we are working with staff to amend the language as much as possible to help us advance the effort. We are also very close to finalizing complete legislative language for a standalone ACAA amendments bill. We are reaching out to targeted offices at this time to introduce that bill.

Similarly, we continue to take in stories on our website—www.AirAccess30.org. In the first month, we had nearly 2,000 individual visits to the site. We are also working with the Sports Department to include information about the website for attendees to the National Veterans Wheelchair Games this summer as well as with the Meetings Department to include the website on all travel surveys going forward.

DOT Conducting Focus Groups on Air Travel for People with Disabilities

On March 8, 2015, the Department of Transportation held a focus group to discuss the transport of wheelchairs and other mobility aids on aircraft. PVA Senior Associate Advocacy Director Lee Page participated in this focus group. This is one of four focus groups that DOT will be conducting to generate interactive and visual training modules for airline and airport employees and contractors. Additional companion pieces will also be developed for aviation related services and passengers with disabilities. The focus groups include an equal number of stakeholders from the disability and airline communities. When appropriate, airport operators will also be included in the discussions. A focus group on guide assistance was held in December 2015. The remaining focus groups will be held later this year. These include service animals (April 2016) and aircraft seating accommodations (May 2016). We hope that the last focus group will offer an opportunity to discuss the bulkhead seating issue.