June’s Washington Update

June 19 2017                                                                    Volume 23, 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. 

Administration Finally Releases its FY 2018 Budget Request

On May 23, 2017, the President finally released his Administration’s detailed Budget Request for all federal programs, including the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), for FY 2018. The request includes a fair increase for VA programs (despite most other federal agencies getting significant cuts). The budget proposal does include a significant reduction in funding for Major and Minor Construction in VA, as well as cuts to Medical and Prosthetic Research, the Veterans Benefits Administration, and Information Technology.

The House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs subsequently held a hearing on the President’s Budget Request on May 24, 2017 followed by a hearing before the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs on June 14, 2017. PVA Associate Executive Director of Government Relations Carl Blake testified for the Senate VA Committee hearing. In testimony, PVA expressed serious concerns with the VA’s plan for continued funding through a mandatory account.  We believe that Congress must reject continued funding of the Choice program through a mandatory account and place it in line with all other community care funded through the discretionary Community Care account established previously.

Additionally, we expressed strong opposition to two legislative proposals that are being used to fund the Choice program continuation—round down of cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) payments to the nearest whole dollar and the elimination of Individual Unemployability (IU) for veterans who reach Social Security eligibility age (62). It is beyond comprehension that the Administration would propose such a benefit reduction in order to pay for a flawed funding mechanism for a program (Choice) that sometimes provides health care access to non-service connected disabled veterans. Eliminating IU benefits for veterans over the age of 62 provokes numerous questions. Will veterans who have statutorily protected evaluations (the 20-year rule) also be subject to reduction? Will those dependents using Chapter 35 education benefits based on their sponsor’s IU rating be forced to drop out of school? Will those veterans on IU who are covered by Service-Disabled Life Insurance at no premium be forced to now pay premiums in order to keep coverage? What about state benefits, such as property tax exemptions or state education benefits that are based on 100 percent VA disability ratings? How will this proposal affect efforts to combat veteran suicide and homelessness? The impact of the answers to these questions clearly dictates that Congress should reject this proposal out of hand.

PVA’s formal written statement for the record on behalf of The Independent Budget—co-authored with DAV and VFW can be viewed at www.pva.org.  support for the Senate bill.

PVA Testifies Before Senate Committee on the Evolution of the Choice Program

On June 7, 2017, the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs held a hearing entitled “Examining the Veterans Choice Program and the Future of Care in the Community.”  Gabe Stultz, Legislative Counsel for PVA, testified on PVA’s behalf. This testimony marked Gabe’s first opportunity to testify before the U.S. Congress. VA Secretary David Shulkin unveiled during the hearing what he hopes will be the next iteration of the Choice Program, called the C.A.R.E. (Coordinated Access and Rewarding Experiences) Program. PVA has contributed extensively to VA’s planning efforts over the last year and into the new administration, and while we support many of the major components being offered, we still have concerns over a number of details and omissions.

The major change to the previous plans for expanding the Choice program is a change to the eligibility standards. Current eligibility is determined by whether the veteran will have to wait more than 30 days for a needed service or if the veteran lives more than 40 miles from a VA facility. The new eligibility would be based on a clinical decision that would consider whether the service is available at VA, how long the wait times are, and whether it is feasible to force the veteran to travel to VA for the services. This decision would be made by the VA clinician based on conversations with the veteran instead of a bureaucrat or administrator.

The second component allows VA to offer Choice to all veterans who are affected when the quality of a particular service line falls below the local community standards. VA will identify underperforming service lines, such as urology or cardiology, within its own system, and then it will compare those services with the individual local health care market. If the service line is also underperforming as compared to the local market, VA will allow veterans needing those services to use the community until that service line is fixed.

Finally, a new addition to the plan is for veterans to have the ability to utilize walk-in clinics two times per year subject only to the copayment structure they use with VA. Any visits after two will be charged a copayment of $50, regardless of service-connection.

The hearing covered the basics of this plan. However, Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) pointed out a few details that looked reminiscent of privatization plans highlighted in a straw man document used by the Commission on Care last year. She pointed out a few pilot project authorizations that would allow VA to try out different payment models and governance structures reminiscent of the ideas recommended by Concerned Veterans for America.

PVA continued to express our concern that all of the attention is focused on expanding Choice while failing to plan simultaneously for strengthening VA’s own specialized services. We noted that the Secretary has committed verbally to PVA that VA will increase nursing staff levels by more than 1,000; however, we need to see definitive action taken on this promise. VA must invest in its own foundational services, such as SCI/D care, in order to successfully build a high-performing network.

Senator Tester also highlighted PVA’s testimony on the importance of ensuring that veterans getting care in the community are protected in the event of medical malpractice. In an exchange with PVA, he stressed the point to his colleagues that veterans out in the community are not eligible for service-connected status due to malpractice. If a veteran is injured receiving care inside a VA medical center, he or she is eligible for service-connection under 38 U.S.C § 1151.

Going forward, VA has proposed legislative text, and it is our understanding that the Hill will also be offering legislative packages in the coming weeks representing the future of VA care delivered in the community. To read PVA’s full written statement, please visit www.pva.org.

Bi-Partisan Accountability Bill Passed by Congress

On June 13, 2017, the House of Representatives approved the “VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act,” which was previously passed by the Senate, ensuring that the bill will become law. The bill was originally introduced by Senate VA Committee Chairman Johnny Isakson (R-GA) and Ranking Member Jon Tester (D-MT). The legislation was also co-sponsored by Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL). PVA offered our strong support for this critical piece of legislation. The principle goal of the legislation is to allow the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to terminate bad employees faster while also strengthening protections for whistleblowers. The bill streamlines the VA’s process for reviewing and firing employees who engage in misconduct or perform poorly without sacrificing their due process rights.

Subsequent to passage of the bill, PVA Executive Director Sherman Gillums offered the following statement in support of the bill:

“No other large healthcare system rivals VA’s competence to deliver specialized services at a national level, such as spinal cord injury and disease and polytrauma care, or synthesizes access to healthcare, benefits, support, and peer mentorship better than VA. But what VA needs most right now is the one ‘ability’ it presently lacks and can no longer be taken for granted — accountability. Whether that means better protecting whistleblowers, shortening the reprimand process, or recouping ill-gotten bonuses and relocation expenses, achieving a state of being answerable to the public, the Congress, and most importantly, veterans, will be dictated by the worst behavior the VA Secretary has to tolerate. This bill will be a major step toward having to tolerate such behavior no more.”

PVA also had the opportunity to participate in a press conference following House passage of the bill where we reiterated our support for stronger accountability. Our support is based on our exposure to problems during our annual site visits to VA medical centers that have resulted from lack of proper accountability of VA employees at several levels.

Air Carrier Access Amendments Act Introduced in the Senate

On June 8, 2017, Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) introduced S. 1318, the “Air Carrier Access Amendments Act.” This legislation would make needed improvements to the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) and provide increased opportunities for stakeholders to work with airlines and the U.S. Department of Transportation to improve the air travel experience for passengers with disabilities. Four original co-sponsors, Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Edward Markey (D-MA), Maggie Hassan (D-NH), and Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), joined with Senator Baldwin in supporting the legislation.

Over 30 years ago, President Ronald Reagan signed the ACAA into law. The ACAA prohibits discrimination based on disability in air travel. Despite progress, too many travelers with disabilities still encounter significant barriers, such as damaged assistive devices, delayed assistance, and lack of seating accommodations. Unlike most other civil rights laws, the ACAA lacks a guaranteed private right of action. Consequently, people with disabilities typically receive little if any redress to their specific grievances.

Access for people with disabilities in air travel must move into the 21st century. Otherwise, people with disabilities will be left behind unable to compete in today’s job market or enjoy the opportunities available to other Americans.

The Air Carrier Access Amendments Act (S. 1318) will address these problems by:

  • Strengthening ACAA enforcement through referral of certain complaints to the U.S. Attorney General, increased civil penalties for damaged wheelchairs, and a private right of action.
  • Ensuring airlines acquire airplanes that meet broad accessibility standards. Improved structural access includes safe and effective boarding and deplaning processes, procedures, and equipment, along with better stowage options for assistive devices.
  • Improving training for air carrier personnel and their contractors, including requiring heightened training for personnel who assist with the boarding and deplaning process.
  • Requiring the Secretary of Transportation to work with stakeholders to develop an Airline Passengers with Disabilities Bill of Rights.
  • Creating a U.S. Department of Transportation Advisory Committee on the Air Travel Needs of Passengers with Disabilities.

PVA urges its members to contact their U.S. Senators and ask them to co-sponsor this important legislation. It is our hope that this legislation will be attached to the FAA Reauthorization currently pending in Congress. It is critical that we show widespread support for S. 1318 in the coming weeks.

President’s Budget Proposes Cuts to Important Disability Programs

While the Administration’s FY 2018 Budget Request provides some increases to the VA, it proposes significant cuts in a number of programs important to people with disabilities. Those programs are outlined below:

Social Security – In a reversal of campaign promises not to cut Social Security, the President’s proposed 2018 budget recommends over $74.2 billion in cuts over ten years from Social Security, including $72.4 billion in proposed reductions to Social Security’s disability programs. The budget projects nearly $50 billion in savings would be generated through Social Security demonstration programs to help disability beneficiaries to stay at work or return to work. Cuts of this magnitude would likely be accomplished through stringent work requirements and other measures aimed at reducing benefits or cutting off eligibility entirely for those who do not comply with the work rules.

At the same time, the budget also proposes offsetting unemployment benefits and disability payments for a savings of $2.5 billion. Beneficiaries who attempt to work, but get laid off from a job through no fault of their own, may qualify for Unemployment Insurance benefits that their employers have paid for. Cuts to these benefits would put beneficiaries’ ability to meet their day to day living expenses at risk and would create disincentives by punishing people who attempt to work. Another $10 billion in savings would be achieved by reducing retroactive SSDI benefits to six months from the current 12 months retroactive payments, which has been the standard since 1958. The average disabled worker receives approximately $1,170 per month in SSDI and those affected by this change could lose over $7,000 per year by this cut. The budget proposes to cut an additional $4 billion out of Social Security—including the retirement, survivors’, and disability programs.

Department of Health and Human Services – The budget proposes more than $1 trillion in Medicaid cuts (estimates have been as high as over $1.4 trillion) over the next 10 years from a combination of repealing and replacing the ACA and an estimated $610 billion in additional cuts. Block grants in the President’s budget would make even further cuts than those allowed under the American Health Care Act (AHCA). The budget also proposes a $142.4 million decrease in overall funding for the Administration for Community Living and level funds one component of the nationwide Independent Living system at $78 million. However, the budget consolidates money for a second Independent Living account with funding for State Councils on Developmental Disabilities and Traumatic Brain Injury funding into one “Partnership for Innovation, Inclusion, and Independence.” The funding for this new Partnership line item is $45 million, a $57 million loss from the $102 million combined for all these programs in funding in FY 2017. The cuts resulting from this consolidation would be detrimental to all three programs.

Department of Labor – The President’s budget proposes to eliminate roughly one fifth of the Department of Labor’s (DOL) overall budget. To achieve a $2.5 billion cut, the document calls for the elimination of “duplicative, unnecessary, unproven, or ineffective” programs while focusing on “highest priority functions” but provides few details on particular program reductions or eliminations. One of the few specifics in the document concerns the Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) which is directed to eliminate “less critical technical assistance grants.” Advocates are concerned that the Job Accommodation Network (JAN), one of the main grant programs, may fall victim to these budgetary directions. The DOL budget proposal also includes elimination of the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP) which oversees implementation of VEVRAA and Section 503 governing federal contractor obligations to recruit and hire targeted veterans and people with disabilities. These OFCCP functions would be transferred to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Civil rights supporters are concerned that such a move would impede the work of both the OFCCP and the EEOC as each have distinct missions and expertise, and thereby undermine the civil rights protections that employers and workers have relied on for almost fifty years.

Update on the ADA Education and Reform Act of 2017

The ADA Education and Reform Act of 2017, H.R. 620, has gained additional co-sponsors in recent weeks. PVA opposes H.R. 620 because it would ultimately lead to decreased accessibility in public accommodations under Title III of the ADA. The legislation was introduced in January by Representative Ted Poe (D-CA), with co-sponsors Representatives Scott Peters (D-CA), Ken Calvert (R-CA), Ami Bera (D-CA), Jackie Speier (D-CA), and Michael Conaway (R-TX).

As of June 14, the following members have signed on as co-sponsors:

  • Representative Pete Aguilar (D-CA)
  • Representative Ralph Lee Abraham (R-LA)
  • Representative J. Luis Correa (D-CA)
  • Representative Doug Collins (R-GA)
  • Representative Bill Foster (D-IL)
  • Representative Jeff Denham (R-CA)
  • Representative Krysten Sinema (D-AZ)
  • Representative Paul Mitchell (R-MI)
  • Representative Darrell E. Issa (R-CA)
  • Representative Bobby Rush (D-IL)
  • Representative Tom Emmer (R-MN)
  • Representative Terri Sewell (D-AL)
  • Representative Mike Coffman (R-CO)

Please contact your Representatives to let them know that PVA opposes this legislation. We are opposed to H.R. 620, because it would require a person with a disability to send a very specific letter of notification to the owner or operator of a non-compliant business prior to being able to file a lawsuit. There is no penalty under the ADA that accrues for the length of time that a business was out of compliance. As a result, businesses (large and small) could decide to simply wait until a person with a disability provides them with the required notice before taking any action to meet ADA accessibility requirements. We believe that businesses should proactively seek to comply with the ADA and work with the ADA National Network and other entities for any needed technical assistance.

The bill is pending before the House Judiciary Committee and may be marked up by the full committee in the coming weeks.

ADA Symposium

In May, National Advocacy staff attended the annual National ADA Symposium in Rosemont, Illinois. Hosted this year by the Great Plains ADA Center, this annual conference brings together disability advocates, subject matter experts, government officials and service providers for three days of workshops and networking opportunities. Sessions ranged from basics about the Americans with Disabilities Act and its enforcement to advanced workshops delving into specific components of disability law such as internet accessibility, workplace leave policies as employment accommodations, and accessible housing requirements under the International Building Code, Architectural Barriers Act and ADA.

Ann Raish, Acting Chief of the Department of Justice Disability Rights Division, presented an update on that agency’s work in enforcing the ADA’s Title II (State and local governments) and Title III (public accommodations) and continued efforts to implement the 1999 Supreme Court Olmstead decision calling for federal programs to serve people with disabilities in the least restrictive environment. Other workshops focused on what is likely to happen to long term services and supports in the wake of revisions to the Affordable Care Act, how service animals are treated under different disability rights laws, emergency preparedness for people with disabilities, and ADA requirements for light rail and commuter transportation systems. The 2018 ADA Symposium will take place in Pittsburgh, PA.

PVA Participates in Afghan Disability Rights Conference

The Embassy of Afghanistan hosted a disability rights conference from May 23-24 during which PVA was invited to take part in an employment panel on the second day of the meeting. Organized by the U.S. Council on Disabilities (USCID), the U.S.-Afghan Women’s Council, and Georgetown University Center for Child and Human Development, the conference was a follow up to the first National Conference for Persons with Disabilities held in Kabul, Afghanistan in the fall of 2016. A 2012 signatory to the United Nation’s Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities, Afghanistan has over 600,000 people with disabilities in that small country. The Georgetown University meeting was intended to highlight progress and challenges since the 2016 conference and bring together advocates and subject matter experts from the U.S. with their Afghan counterparts to discuss practical approaches for inclusive education, public health care and employment programs and policies.

The theme of the conference’s first day was “From Policy to Programming” and featured presentations on education reforms as well as public health and vocational training initiatives being undertaken by the government and various non-profit organizations in the country. Attendees were welcomed by Dr. Hamdulla Mohib, Afghanistan’s Ambassador to the U.S., who spoke of the challenges implementing a law adopted by his country requiring that 3 percent of government jobs be reserved for individuals with disabilities. Many of the difficulties faced by Afghanistan in living up to the spirit of this law would sound familiar to many Americans with disabilities including inaccessible buildings, lack of funding resources and stigma. A hopeful note was sounded in a video by First Lady of Afghanistan Rula Ghani who highlighted her commitment and that of President Ghani to measures assuring integration of people with disabilities into society. She was followed by a keynote address from Judy Heumann, former Senior Advisor on International Disability Rights at the U.S. State Department. Heumann urged the Afghan attendees to monitor construction of schools, civic facilities and health centers built with U.S. foreign aid and to raise objections if they fail to include accessible features. Conference delegates also heard from disability rights leader retired Senator Tom Harkin and Tim Shriver, chairman of the Special Olympics.

On the second day of the conference, USCID hosted the Afghan delegates at its offices for a full day of panel presentations from U.S. policy experts and advocates on the three main topics covered by the conference. Susan Prokop, Senior Associate Advocacy Director for PVA, took part in an employment panel along with representatives from RespectAbility and TransCen. In her remarks, Susan discussed the history and scope of vocational services offered to U.S. veterans and described PVA’s own vocational rehabilitation program, Paving Access to Veterans Employment (PAVE). Posts from the conference can be found on Twitter at #AFGDisabilityConf.

 

 

 

February Washington Update

February 16, 2017 Volume 23, No. 2

***PRIORITY***

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

Senate Unanimously Confirms Dr. David Shulkin as Secretary of Veterans of Affairs

On February 13, 2017, the Senate unanimously confirmed Dr. David Shulkin as the next Secretary to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs. Despite a week of all-night debates as part of efforts to delay more controversial Cabinet Appointees, debate on Secretary Shulkin lasted a mere ten minutes. His confirmation is historic in that he will be the first person to lead the Department never having served in uniform. A strong compensating factor, though, is that for the past two years, he has served as the Under Secretary of the Veterans Health Administration (VHA), specifically leading the efforts to reform veterans’ health care.

His successful private sector career in health care coupled with experience working at the highest level of VA suggests he is uniquely suited to hit the ground running. With this favorable blend of experience, though, comes added scrutiny. While Secretary Shulkin has publicly committed to not “privatizing the VA,” PVA will continue to stress with Secretary Shulkin, as we have in the past, the importance of protecting specialized services and appropriate staffing levels in providing high-quality care to veterans with a spinal cord injury or disease.

One specific challenge he is expected to face is the requirement to broaden his view beyond VHA and lead the Department as a whole. As he already acknowledged during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, there is an intersection between VHA and the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) in the world of disability claims adjudication that cannot be ignored. Put simply, in most instances, veterans cannot receive health care from VA until they receive a rating from VBA. It is imperative the claims and appeals are adjudicated swiftly, efficiently, and, most of all, accurately.

The Independent Budget Policy Agenda for the 115th Congress Released

In February, the co-authors of The Independent Budget (IB)—DAV, Paralyzed Veterans of America, and Veterans of Foreign Wars—released the IB Policy Agenda for the 115th Congress. This year marks the 30th edition of this important endeavor. Since the release of our last policy agenda at the start of the 114th Congress in January 2015, we have seen significant attention on reforming key elements of the delivery of veterans’ health care and benefits. Our focus remains on informing and influencing key policy decisions directed by the administration and Congress that will have a direct impact on veterans and their families.

This year’s document highlights six critical issues that we believe require the greatest attention for the 115th Congress. The critical issues include:

1. Strengthen, Reform, and Sustain the VA Health Care System—The IB focuses on the framework for veterans’ health care delivery reform proposed in 2015. 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. Our recommendations are also meant to frame the debate in the context of the VA’s community care consolidation plan, the Commission on Care recommendations, and recommendations from the Independent Assessment conducted by the MITRE and RAND corporations.

2. Remove Budget Constraints that Negatively Impact Veterans Programs—This edition focuses on the structural impediments that lead to insufficient resources being provided to ensure VA has adequate capacity to meet the needs of veterans. It addresses ongoing budget caps, sequestration, PAYGO and other budget and appropriations rules as well as the need to complete appropriations reform providing all VA programs advance appropriations.

3. Reform the Claims and Appeals Process—Appeals modernization and reform has been a primary objective of VA leadership and has been widely discussed in the House and Senate. The IB focuses on the issues that must be addressed in the course of implementation of claims and appeals reform irrespective of the final outcome of appeals reform legislation.

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. The Commission on Care and the MITRE-RAND Independent Assessment recognized the significant funding gap for VA’s infrastructure and the need to realign and right-size that infrastructure to best serve veterans, efficiently deploy resources and remain viable in the future

5. Improvements Needed in the Program of Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers (PCAFC) of Severely Injured Veterans—Expansion of the comprehensive family caregiver program administered by the VA to veterans of all eras remains a high priority for the IB. Additionally, key facets of that program must be improved to ensure efficient implementation and effective delivery of services. At the same time, other programs that offer similar support services for catastrophically disabled veterans must be enhanced.

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. Additionally, benefits and service support programs must be enhanced to ensure that women veterans receive equitable treatment in the delivery of their earned benefits and services.

The IB serves as a guide for our legislative work in Congress and as a resource for both the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). This policy agenda will soon be followed by the budget report for FY 2018 and FY 2019, scheduled to be released before the end of February.

To view the full IB Policy Agenda for the 115th Congress, visit http://www.independentbudget.org.

HVAC Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs Examines Impact of National Work Queue

The Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs kicked off the 115th Congress with a hearing examining the progress of VBA’s new method of allocating disability claims among its processors, the National Work Queue (NWQ). Historically, claims were processed by the local Regional Office (RO) where it was submitted. Naturally, some offices experience a relatively light workload or exceptional productivity while others are inundated with an overwhelming number of claims or, for any number of reasons, are plagued with low productivity and slow processing times. In an attempt to move into the 21st Century, VBA developed and began using a digital system designed to gather all disability claims submitted by veterans throughout the United States and distribute them to RO’s based on capacity. The practical effect for veterans is that if your local RO is handling claims in a timely manner, your claim will likely be adjudicated locally. But if your local RO is struggling to process claims within a standard of 125 days, the NWQ will take the excess claims that the local office cannot handle and move them to an RO that can.

Moving to a digital system and changing the landscape of where claims are normally processed brought both increased efficiency and accuracy. But it is also still facing certain challenges. Chairman Mike Bost (R-IL) touched on one of these challenges, the paradox of VBA increasing efficiency in processing claims and yet the backlog continues to rise. The Veterans Health Administration faces the same issue – as access to care improves, more veterans want in to use VA health care. Likewise with claims – as processing times and accuracy improve, more veterans find it worth it to submit a claim. In essence, the efficiency is offset by increased demand, and it ultimately looks like VA is making no progress.

New Ranking Member Elizabeth Esty (D-CT) and Chairman Bost both attempted to flesh out the VSOs’ collective concerns, though, with claims that are no longer local. Under the old system, the VSO service officers would be able to review the RO’s decision prior to it being issued, mostly to correct any clerical or blatant errors before the decision was made final. VFW noted that, by its calculations, 1 in 10 claims experience errors that were easily correctable. Being able to inform the RO of a mistake before the decision is finalized prevents a large number of veterans from being unnecessarily forced into the arduous and lengthy appeals process. It similarly prevents VA from having to do unnecessary work. Under the new digital system, VA’s attempt to re-create this feature just is not working. Service officers are struggling to track down claims that have been distributed to other RO’s and they are not able to prevent final decisions from being made with mistakes. VBA officials have yet to produce an acceptable remedy, and this hearing was a chance for Congress and VSO’s to apply more pressure to VBA for a fix.

PVA has observed a particular concern with the NWQ as it relates to special issues, specifically Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) claims, homelessness, and terminal issues. When these claims are arriving in the NWQ, they are not being flagged appropriately and worked by the appropriate team. Instead they are being worked in the order of the date of claim. This creates a delay in these claims which could cause the veteran to die before seeing benefits. PVA hopes to work with VBA to alleviate this problem.

ADA Education and Reform Act of 2017 Reintroduced in the House

On January 24, 2017, Representative Ted Poe (R-TX) reintroduced the “ADA Education and Reform Act of 2017.” This legislation would limit the ability of people with disabilities to enforce their rights under the ADA by requiring a person with a disability to send a letter of notification to a business alerting the owner that it is out of compliance due to an architectural barrier prior to being able to file a lawsuit. Other co-sponsors include Representatives Scott Peters (D-CA), Ken Calvert (R-CA), Ami Bera (D-CA), Jackie Speier (D-CA), and Michael Conaway (R-TX).

PVA opposes this legislation. We believe that it would remove the incentive for businesses, social service establishments, and other places of public accommodation to comply with the ADA’s accessibility requirements. Businesses could employ a “wait and see” approach, continuing to violate the law with impunity. Instead, businesses should be proactive in complying with the ADA and work with the ADA National Network and other entities for any needed educational resources.

DOT Releases Annual Report on Disability-Related Complaints for 2015

In February 2017, DOT released the latest figures on complaints filed directly with airlines. In 2015, passengers filed 30,830 disability-related complaints as reported by 176 domestic and foreign air carriers, which represents a nearly twelve percent increase over 2014. Top complaints with U.S. carriers for passengers with paraplegia or quadriplegia include failure to provide assistance and seating accommodation. In 2015, passengers also filed 939 disability-related complaints directly with DOT.

 

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

 

February Washington Update

February 18, 2016                                                            Volume 22, No. 2

Administration Releases FY 2017 Budget Request, Includes Inadequate Advance Appropriations for FY 2018

PVA, along with our partners in The Independent Budget, believe that the FY 2017, VA Budget Request is a generally good budget.  The Administration’s budget request is $78.7 billion in total discretionary spending for FY 2017.  When considering the additional $5.7 billion that the Administration projects spending from the Choice Act, the total projected expenditure from VA in FY 2017 is approximately $84.2 billion.  The Independent Budget veterans’ service organizations (IBVSOs) recommend $84.4 billion in total funding for the VA.

PVA believes that significant attention must be placed on ensuring adequate resources are provided through the Medical Services account to ensure timely delivery of high quality health care.  We are generally pleased with the Administration’s revised overall medical care funding level for FY 2017, and overall discretionary funding level, but believe the advance appropriations recommendation for Medical Services in FY 2018, approximately $54.3 billion, is woefully inadequate to meet continually growing demand for health care services.  The Administration appears to have punted responsibility for properly addressing the funding question for VA medical care to a new Administration following this fall’s election.  This is an unacceptable proposition.  For FY 2018, the IBVSOs recommend approximately $64 billion in advance appropriations for Medical Services.

Similarly, PVA has serious concerns about the 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 rapid growth in this area of health care spending.  Congress and the Administration must ensure that it devotes critical resources to expand capacity and increase staffing of the existing health care system, particularly for specialized services such as spinal cord injury or disease, not just punts this responsibility into the private sector.  Simply outsourcing more care to the community will ultimately undermine the larger health care system which many veterans with the most catastrophic disabilities rely upon.

Also as we have previously stated, we believe the advance appropriations amount for FY 2017, provided for by Congress in the “FY 2016 Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act,” approved in December 2015, is not sufficient to meet the full demand for services being placed on the system.  For FY 2017, the IB recommends approximately $72.8 billion for total Medical Care.  Congress recently approved only $66.6 billion for total Medical Care (based on an assumption that includes approximately $3.3 billion for medical care collections).

PVA is also pleased to see another significant increase in funding for Medical and Prosthetic Research.  For FY 2017, the Administration recommends approximately $663 million for research nearly matching the recommendation of the IBVSOs.  However, we are disappointed that the Administration did not similarly match our recommendation—$75 million—for dedicated funding for the Million Veterans Program.

Perhaps of greatest concern is the Administration’s terribly inadequate funding request for Major and Minor Construction.  For FY 2017, the VA recommends only $528 million for Major Construction and $372 million for Minor Construction.  The IBVSOs recommend $1.5 billion for Major Construction and $749 million for Minor Construction.  VA leaderships’ reasoning for these inadequate requests is particularly galling—they would prefer to wait and see what recommendations the Congressionally-mandated Commission on Care makes with regards to infrastructure before committing significant new resources to projects.  This despite the fact that the VA currently has more than 30 major construction projects that are either partially funded or funded through completion, but in which construction is incomplete.  It is time for the projects that have been in limbo for years or that present a safety risk to veterans and employees to be put on a course to completion.

The President’s Request for DOL and VETS

The President’s Budget Request for FY 2017 also included $12.8 billion overall for the Department of Labor (DOL).  This represents an increase of $600 million over FY 2016.  The Veterans Employment and Training Service (VETS) received a five percent increase to $285 million and funding for the Homeless Veterans Reintegration Program (HVRP) was set at the full authorization level of $50 million for the first time.  The HVRP has long been lauded as one of the most cost-effective programs in the federal government, and yet it has never been fully funded at the $50 million level.

The Jobs for Veterans State Grants program that supports Disabled Veterans Outreach Program (DVOP) staff and Local Veterans Employment Representatives (LVER) was flat funded at $175 million.  Within DOL’s Employment and Training Administration, adult workforce system programs were increased by $27 million and dislocated worker programs received a $93 million increase.  The Office of Disability Employment Policy received a modest increase in the President’ budget going from $38.2 million in FY 2016 to $38.5 million in FY 2017.

HVAC Begins Series of Hearings on VA Community Care Consolidation Plan

The House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, Subcommittee on Health began a 4-part series of hearings this month related to the VA’s recently released plan to consolidate its purchased care programs into one New Veterans Choice Program.  The first hearing was held on February 2, 2016, and addressed eligibility requirements for care in the community.  Carl Blake, Associate Executive Director for Government Relations, testified on behalf of PVA.

Although the new VA plan does much to address the convoluted system of granting veterans access to community care, VA still plans to employ a 30-day and 40-mile eligibility standard.  PVA has consistently advocated for abolishing this arbitrary standard and implementing a system which determines when and where a veteran receives by keeping such clinical decisions between a veteran and his or her doctor.

The forum also provided PVA an opportunity to propose to the Committee expanding travel benefits to include non-service connected, catastrophically disabled veterans who are already granted high priority.  Ranking Member Julia Brownley (D-CA) specifically noted in her opening remarks that one aspect of health care often overlooked is the cost associated with veterans with disabilities who require the assistance of caregivers to access care.  She has proposed legislation that would authorize payment of beneficiary travel expenses for veterans with vision impairment, spinal cord injury or disease, or double or multiple amputations, whose travel is in connection with care provided through VA.  Following the hearing, Rep. Ralph Abraham (R-LA), Chairman of the House VA Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs, expressed interest in advancing the proposal.

PVA also had an opportunity to address VA’s proposal for expanded urgent and emergency care, along with the new co-payments.  While PVA supports the idea of expanding access to emergency and urgent care services, we strongly oppose the co-payments recommended for those services—$100 for emergency care and $50 for urgent care.  This co-payment would be required of any enrolled veteran seeking emergency or urgent care regardless if they have service-connected disability or are exempted from co-payments as a catastrophically disabled, Priority Group 4 veteran.

The second hearing was held on February 11, 2016, and focused on improving VA community care billing and reimbursement.  Representatives from the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) testified in addition to VA officials.  Much of the discussion with VA officials revolved around the monumental task of overhauling the technology framework needed to implement its plan.  The VSO representatives brought attention during their testimony to the issue of third party administrators failing to promptly pay providers.  When providers are not paid, many times they turn to the veteran to seek payment for care VA was supposed to pay for.  In numerous cases, veterans unable to foot the bill have had significant negative impact on their personal credit.

To read PVA’s statement from the February 2nd hearing, please visit www.pva.org.

PVA Testifies on VA’s Specially Adapted Housing Grant Program

On February 10, 2016, the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity held a hearing regarding VA’s Loan Guaranty and Specially Adaptive Housing Grant Programs.  Heather Ansley, Associate General Counsel for Corporate and Government Relations, testified on behalf of PVA.

VA’s Specially Adapted Housing (SAH) grant program allows veterans and servicemembers who are permanently and totally disabled as a result of their military service, and who have a disability such as loss or loss of use of both legs, with assistance to remodel an existing home or build or purchase a home that will accommodate their disability-related needs.  Accommodations may include wider doorways, ramps, roll-in showers, and other modifications that allow individuals with catastrophic disabilities greater independence.  In fiscal year 2015, VA approved 1,648 SAH grants for a total amount of $94,449,587.

PVA’s testimony detailed areas of concern that must be addressed to ensure that the program is able to meet the needs of all eligible veterans, including those with diseases such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).

One of the biggest challenges PVA encounters in the SAH program is the length of time it takes for grants to be processed and approved.  The difficulties that these delays create are especially concerning for veterans living with ALS.  These veterans are critical users of the SAH grant program; however, the grant process is not well suited to veterans with rapidly changing diseases.  Ultimately, the SAH program must be flexible enough to assist veterans who have relatively static disabilities, such as spinal cord injuries, and those who have progressive diseases.

In many parts of the country, inadequate staffing also contributes to delays in processing grants and results in poor customer service for veterans.  According to PVA’s service officers, many veterans are having a difficult time contacting their SAH agents as phone calls and emails are not returned in a timely manner.  Insufficient staffing also leads to retention problems as agents leave their positions due to the excessive workload and extensive travel requirements.

Investments in staffing and streamlined and expedited grant processing for veterans with terminal diseases, along with increased benefits and improved program outreach, will lead to a stronger SAH program.  We look forward to working with Congress and the Administration to address the critical issues raised.

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

PVA Launches AirAccess30.org and Air Carrier Access Advocacy Initiative

At the end of January, PVA’s Government Relations program formally launched its initiative to amend the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) to better benefit people with disabilities who travel by air.  The ACAA, signed on Oct. 2, 1986, by then-President Ronald Reagan, guarantees that people with disabilities receive consistent and nondiscriminatory treatment during air travel and requires air carriers to accommodate the needs of passengers with disabilities. PVA played a leading role in the passage of the ACAA.  The ACAA along with the Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988 were two laws that laid the groundwork for the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990.

Now, PVA is working with the broader disability community to bring attention to the successes and failures in air travel for passengers with disabilities.  As a part of this initiative, individuals with disabilities now have a platform for sharing their stories, photos, videos and graphics about their air travel experiences.  PVA needs all members to actively engage with us in this effort.  AirAccess30.org, launched in January 2016, by PVA, enables passengers with disabilities who utilize air travel to share positive and negative stories about their experiences. The new website seeks the input of passengers with disabilities in showing the progress that has been made as well as the work that remains to accomplish the true spirit of the ACAA.

Please share the www.AirAccess30.org website and encourage all people with disabilities to share their stories.  We will be using these stories to increase advocacy around the ACAA and improve air travel for passengers with disabilities.

PVA Participates in Amtrak Compliance Meeting

On February 5, 2016, PVA’s National Advocacy staff met with Amtrak Vice President Joe McHugh and Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Coordinator Gary Talbot as well as other representatives of the disability community for the quarterly Amtrak ADA compliance review.  Amtrak was required to be compliant with the regulations of the ADA in 2010.  Congress originally gave Amtrak 20 years after the passage of the ADA to comply recognizing the cost and infrastructural changes that would need to be made at stations and on board the train to fully accommodate travelers with disabilities. Whereas PVA has been involved with Amtrak beginning in 1992, and throughout the 1990’s, with training of personnel and designing communication pieces, Amtrak did not begin infrastructure changes until 2008.

Review topics from the meeting included an overview of the ADA Stations Program (ASP) and ADA Compliance Effort for FY 2014 and FY 2015, and project plans for FY 2016 with a status update on current projects.  Those projects include elevator installation at Union Station in Washington, DC, on track 27/28; the new “set back” platform in Ann Arbor, MI; level boarding platform construction at Roanoke, VA; and an update on the Paoli, PA station renovation that resulted from a National Disability Rights Network (NDRN) lawsuit.

The meeting concluded with discussions about the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA)/Amtrak ASP Five Year Plan (FY 2017 to FY 2021), and implementation of P.L. 114-94, the “Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act.”  The next meeting compliance review meeting will be held later this summer.

 

ADA 25th Anniversary

ADA Celebrates 25th Anniversary
July 26, 2015 marks the 25th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Celebrations of the signing of the ADA by President George H.W. Bush on July 26, 1990 are taking place across the nation.  The ADA and the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 (ADAAA) give civil rights protections to individuals with disabilities similar to those
provided to individuals on the basis of race, color, sex, national origin, age, and religion. The ADA and ADAAA also assure equal opportunity for individuals with disabilities for access to businesses, employment, transportation, state and local government programs and services, and telecommunications.  Paralyzed Veterans helped lead the charge for passage of the act in 1990 but recognized that the law is not cure-all in fighting discrimination and ensuring disability access. The fight continues for accessible
employment opportunities through the PAVE program and continued improvements
in architecture. Currently, PVA is working to eliminate barriers to polling sites, assuring that all with disabilities can exercise their right to vote.  Be sure to let us know what the
ADA means to you and share your ideas about the work still to be done. Find us at Face
-book.com/KIPVA, on Twitter @KYINPVA, by email at info@kipva.org or by phone at
502-635-6539. We will include your thoughts next month as we continue the conversation about this significant milestone.

Coaches Corner


marcus blog

By Troy Colon

The 35th National Veterans Wheelchair Games will soon be upon us. With the weather finally breaking it’s a great time to start getting outdoors again. For many this is an opportunity to meet up with team mates and get some much needed practice in for the Games. Application deadlines are April 15th for the novice athletes. The experienced Games athletes should have already turned most of their paperwork into the KIPVA chapter. If you have not done so please call the KIPVA office for assistance. Since this year’s event will be in Dallas, you can bet it’s going to be warm. Everyone should start increasing their water intake now. Heat Exhaustion should not be taken lightly and can quickly take you out of competition. The NVWG requires all athletes to get medically cleared for competition. A lot can change in the months that pass from your Exam in the SCI Clinic. If you notice any changes in your health in the next few months, please go to the clinic and be looked at before we go to the Games. Not only should you focus on your health, now would be the time to look over your equipment as well. If your manual wheelchair or electric mobility device needs to be repaired or serviced, don’t wait. Get the process going with Prosthetics and your local Service Center to get your equipment in good working order. This is going to be a great year for the games and an exciting time for the KIPVA NVWG team.

Washington Updates – February

February 21, 2014                                                       Volume 20,   No. 2

 Major Veterans Legislation Introduced in the Senate
In January, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs introduced one of the most comprehensive veterans bills to ever be considered in the Senate or House—S. 1982 (originally introduced as S. 1950), the “Comprehensive Veterans Health and Benefits and Military Retirement Pay Restoration Act of 2014.” If enacted, S. 1982 would accomplish some of the highest priorities for Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA) and its members.

This comprehensive bill would create, expand, advance, and extend a wide array of VA health care and benefits services and programs that are important to PVA and its members. Specifically, this legislation provides for the expansion of the Comprehensive Caregiver Assistance Program to veterans of all eras (not just those injured after September 11, 2001). This change represents one of the single biggest priorities for PVA.

The legislation also addresses another high priority for PVA. Specifically, the bill provides advance appropriations authority for VA’s mandatory funding accounts (compensation and pension, education benefits, dependency and indemnity compensation, etc.) to ensure that in the event of a future government shutdown, veterans’ benefits payments would not be delayed or put in jeopardy. The need for this change was revealed during the partial government shutdown that occurred in October 2013.

Another high priority for PVA that this legislation addresses is repeal of the reduction in future cost-of-living adjustments (COLA) for all military retirees, not just service members who are retired due to disability. The Senate and House shamefully approved a one percent reduction in the COLA for military retirees as a part of the Bipartisan Budget Agreement in December 2013. Currently, it appears that the House and Senate may approve stand-alone legislation to repeal the COLA reduction for all military retirees.

Additionally, the legislation opens the VA health care system up to any veteran who wishes to enroll for care instead of entering into a health care exchange under the provisions of the Affordable Care Act. Additionally, it sets up a mechanism to expand access to dental care for all veterans.

Following a major grassroots effort from the veterans’ service organization (VSO) community to build support for S. 1982, PVA along with many of its VSO partners joined Senator Sanders for a press conference to encourage bipartisan support for the measure. As a part of the press conference, PVA emphasized the importance of the provision to expand the Comprehensive Caregiver Support Program to benefit veterans of all eras.

Subsequent to the introduction of the legislation, Senator John Boozman (R-AR) and Senate Mark Begich (D-AK) offered an amendment to S. 1982 that would make all the programs of the VA advance appropriations, including the discretionary accounts (with the exception of VA health care that is already advance appropriated). PVA strongly supports the Boozman-Begich amendment.

House Veterans Affairs’ Subcommittee Examines VBA Transformation
On February 5, Representative Jon Runyan (R-NJ), Chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs conducted a hearing to review the current status and secondary effects of the Veterans Benefits Administration’s (VBA) technology initiatives. PVA submitted a formal statement for the record for the hearing. Representatives from the veterans service organization community as well as the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and the Defense Health Agency testified at the hearing.

The hearing focused on a number of issues; however, Chairman Runyan indicated that his primary reason for holding the hearing was because of his interest in improving the efficiencies of the VA benefits systems by streamlining and simplifying services to veterans, their families and survivors. The Chairman indicated he was eager to work with VA to implement reasonable changes and said he was optimistic that many of the actions VA has employed to date have made a positive change. However, he cautioned VA that as they strive to achieve the 125 day goal for claims in 2015, they must not prioritize an “appearance” of success over actual quantitative improvement. Ranking Minority Member Dina Titus (D-NV) echoed the Chairman’s points, remarking that last fiscal year VA completed a record 1.7 million claims, reduced the time veterans had to wait for their claims, and cut the claims backlog by 35 percent. She also thanked the stakeholders present at the hearing for their help in reducing the backlog as well through their efforts and advice to veterans seeking benefits.

PVA outlined a number of concerns in our statement. One particular concern is VA’s recent plan that they have outlined would require electronic forms submission when filing an initial claim. This plan, if enacted, would significantly disadvantage veterans in seeking their earned benefits. If a veteran doesn’t express his intention to secure a benefit on the right form, he or she won’t be recognized as having made a claim. The burden is on the veteran and VA’s duty to assist will be seriously diluted, potentially interfering with a veteran’s access to their rightful benefit. This is a path that PVA is unwilling to endorse.

Additionally, PVA’s major concern at this point is the ability of VBA employees to effectively comprehend and implement the new transformation initiatives as these new programs are rolled out. VA employees are conscientious, hard working individuals; but the ongoing changes have been a challenge for the workforce. PVA has often testified on the lack of good training programs by VA that provide adjudicators with the base of knowledge needed for the complicated job of claims processing. With all the changes going on, there often seems to be difficulty in getting the new policies, procedures or processes down to the lowest staff level. We believe this trend continues despite the transformation.

The changes to VBA systems have been good. However, if the changes are not closely monitored and sufficient time is not taken to ensure the changes are implemented correctly, it could easily lead to greater inaccuracy at the expense of the veteran. As the Chairman implied in his opening statement, numbers success is not the goal for VA; proper services for the veteran, their family and survivors is the true measure of success. PVA will continue to closely monitor VA’s efforts to ensure this remains the goal. To read PVA’s full statement, please visit www.pva.org.

House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations Holds Hearing on VA Accountability and Surgical Implants

On January 15, 2014, the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, held a hearing titled, “Vendors in the Operating Room—VA’s Failed Oversight of Surgical Implants.” The purpose of the hearing was to assess the Department of Veterans’ Affairs’ (VA) ability to manage the procurement of surgical implants for veterans. The Subcommittee focused on the findings of a recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) investigation of VA policies involving patient safety and surgical implants purchases within VA medical facilities.

Surgical implants purchased by the VA include items such as artificial joints, cardiac pacemakers, and biological implants. During the hearing, the GAO testified that “…VA surgical implant purchase requirements were not always followed at selected VA medical centers, and VA oversight needs improvement.” The GAO further stated that this lack of compliance decreases the VA’s ability to determine if surgical implant purchases are “fair and reasonable.” The investigation also found that VA’s current management system does not have an adequate system to monitor and locate veterans with surgical implants. This finding was of particular concern to the Subcommittee as it has the potential to lead to safety issues for veterans if a surgical implant is recalled. The VA testified that it is updating its policy for the procurement of surgical implants (prosthetics) to ensure consistent administration of purchase procedures and better manage the use of surgical implants. The Subcommittee also called into question the VA’s policy that allows vendors selling surgical implants to be present in VA operating rooms, physically providing care to veterans. The VA testified that while it is accepted practice for vendors to be present in “clinical care settings,” it is VA policy that vendors are only present with the consent of veterans and are not to physically interact with veterans and their care.

The Subcommittee strongly urged the VA to strengthen and strictly enforce patient safety guidelines for prosthetic vendors and its medical centers. The VA stated that it is working to improve patient safety, and will continue to review the findings of the GAO investigation.

The FY 2015 Independent Budget Released

The FY 2015 Independent Budget (IB)was released on February 2, 2014, in advance of the Administrations FY 2015 projected budget for the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). This year marks the 28th year that the document has been co-authored by the American Veterans (AMVETS), Disabled American Veterans (DAV), Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA), and the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States (VFW). The IB is published annually as a comprehensive budget and policy document to inform VA leadership and policy makers of veterans’ health care and benefits needs.

For FY 2015, the IB recommends that Congress provide a total of $72.9 billion for veterans’ VA health care and benefits services. In addition to the VA budget recommendation, the document is comprised of five sections that address policy issues involving VA services—Benefits, Medical Care, Construction, Employment and Education, and the National Cemetery Administration. Issues of particular concern to the IB co-authors this year include the underfunding of VA construction accounts, continued reduction of the benefits claims backlog, and expanding advanced appropriations to all VA discretionary and mandatory appropriations accounts. After the Administration proposes a FY 2015 budget, the IB co-authors will testify before Congress to address these issues.

The IB is a highly regarded document that is utilized by members of Congress and federal leaders to determine ways to better serve veterans. More than 50 organizations are listed as endorsers of this year’s IB in support of improving VA services for veterans.

The Independent Budget is available online at www.independentbudget.org.

New VEVRAA and Section 503 Rules Spur Federal Contractor Outreach
In late January, Advocacy staff participated in a conference organized by representatives of the federal contractor community to educate companies doing business with the federal government about new regulations governing recruitment and hiring of veterans and people with disabilities. On March 24, 2014, new rules issued by the Department of Labor Office Of Federal Contract Compliance Programs [OFCCP] go into effect calling for greater accountability by federal contractors in following requirements under the Vietnam Era Veterans Re-adjustment Act [VEVRAA] and Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act.

VEVRAA, which actually covers veterans beyond the Vietnam era, requires contractors and subcontractors with a federal contract or subcontract in the amount of $100,000 to take affirmative steps to employ and advance certain qualified covered veterans. These classes of veterans include those with service-connected disabilities, recently separated veterans (veterans within 3 years of their discharge or release from active duty), veterans who served on active duty during a war or in a campaign or expedition for which a campaign badge has been authorized and Armed Forces service medal veterans. To meet the benchmarks set out under the new VEVRAA rules, OFCCP has projected that federal contractors would need to hire an additional 205,500 veterans in these categories.

Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act places nondiscrimination and general affirmative action requirements for qualified people with disabilities on government contractors with contracts or subcontracts in excess of $10,000. OFCCP has estimated that, to meet the goals set out for Section 503, federal contractors will have to hire an additional 594,580 individuals with disabilities, 84,490 of which would be protected veterans with disabilities.

One panel at this OFCCP Institute focused on best practices for contractors to following in recruiting individuals and veterans with disabilities. Advocacy staff highlighted PVA’s Operation PAVE and its successes in placing veterans with the most significant barriers to employment. Other panelists described the key elements of corporate culture that foster a diverse talent pool and outreach efforts to veterans undertaken by one major federal contractor, Lockheed Martin.

The second day of the Institute featured a job fair for veterans and their families from around the Washington, DC area. Staff from PVA’s Operation PAVE took part in this program offering advice and guidance on resume writing, job search techniques and the services provided through the vocational rehabilitation program.

ADA Live – Voting Accessibility
“ADA Live!” is a monthly radio show broadcast free on the Internet. Ask questions and learn about your rights and responsibilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

The next episode is “Voting Accessibility”. In 2002, President George W. Bush signed into law the Help America Vote Act (HAVA). This legislation is aimed at improving the general election process and sets forth new requirements for state election officials to follow. This episode will explain HAVA and the Americans with Disabilities Act, and discuss the requirement to make polling places across the United States accessible to people with disabilities. The show will also discuss accessible registration, effective communication, voting aids and accessible polling places for people with disabilities.

ADA Live – Voting Accessibility
March 5
1:00 pm to 1:30 pm
Listen here: http://www.blogtalkradio.com/wada-se
Live captioning here: http://adalive.org/captioning
Check out the archive of past episodes here: http://adalive.org/schedule
For questions or more information, contact the Southeast ADA Center here: http://adalive.org/contact