May Washington Update

May 16, 2017 Volume 23, No. 5

***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.

Bi-Partisan Accountability Bill Introduced

On May 11, 2017, Senate VA Committee Chairman Johnny Isakson (R-GA) and Ranking Member Jon Tester (D-MT) introduced the “VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act.” 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.

The “VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act” has three major provisions:

1. Increase accountability within the VA by:

a. Giving the VA Secretary the authority to expedite the removal, demotion or suspension of employees at the VA based on performance or misconduct.

b. Shortening the process to remove employees at all levels of the department when evidence proves that they have engaged in misconduct or are performing poorly.

c. Incentivizing managers to address poor performance and misconduct among employees by including these issues in the annual performance plan.

d. Prohibiting bonuses for employees who have been found guilty of wrongdoing.

e. Prohibiting relocation expenses for employees who abuse the system.

2. Protect whistleblowers by:

a. Codifying the Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection at the VA and mandating that the head of the office be selected by the President with the advice and consent of the Senate, giving Congress more oversight over the department.

b. Requiring the VA to evaluate supervisors based on their handling of whistleblowers.

c. Requiring the VA to provide department-wide training regarding whistleblower complaints once a year.

3. Strengthen VA leadership by:

a. Giving the VA Secretary additional flexibility in hiring and firing senior executives.

b. Removing bureaucratic barriers to holding senior executive accountable by expediting executive appeals and sending them directly to the VA Secretary.

c. Reducing benefits for employees who are disciplined or removed for misconduct.

Along with PVA, this legislation is supported by the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, Military Order of the Purple Heart, the Project on Government Oversight, AMVETS, and Got Your 6.

PVA Executive Director Sherman Gillums offered the following statement in support of the bill:

Paralyzed Veterans of America has long called for measures that bring greater accountability and protects those employees who have the courage to call out fraud, waste, and abuse in the Department of Veterans Affairs. We firmly believe that the culture of a company, organization, or federal agency is shaped by the worst behaviors its leader is willing to tolerate. The “VA Accountability & Whistleblower Protection Act” is the first major step toward reshaping behavior in VA by tolerating bad behavior and poor performance no more. Our veterans deserve it; and so do the hardworking public servants of VA who are tired of being overshadowed by the performance of substandard managers and employees.

The focus will now turn to the House VA Committee to bring companion legislation forward. During the last Congress, the House and Senate VA Committees were unable to come to a compromise on accountability legislation; however, House VA Committee Chairman Phil Roe (R-TN) and Ranking Member Tim Walz (D-MN) have both offered support for the Senate bill.

House Subcommittee Holds Roundtable on Caregiver Support Programs

On April 27, 2017, the House Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Health held a roundtable to examine how the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) can improve the Caregiver Support Program, available to veterans of all eras, and the Comprehensive Family Caregiver Support Program, limited to veterans who were catastrophically injured after September 11, 2001. Members of the subcommittee and their staffs engaged representatives from the veterans’ service organization (VSO) community, the Veterans Health Administration (VHA), and the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS).

At the forefront of the discussion was the date of injury eligibility requirement of the Comprehensive Family Caregiver Program. Members of Congress generally support expanding the program, but are deeply hesitant to approving this necessary change due to cost considerations. Some veterans groups support the idea of delaying expansion until the current program is made essentially perfect. This is a position that PVA strongly opposes. Representatives of the VA welcome the program’s expansion but expressed concern Congress would not provide them the support and resources needed to meet such an overwhelming need. PVA, DAV, VFW, and the American Legion continue to advocate expansion without hesitation.

Our position remains clear—it is unjust to provide critically needed support services to one group of veterans, and deny it to another, for no other reason than cost. PVA will continue to advocate for the Caregiver Support program to be properly resourced and the Comprehensive Family Caregiver Support Program to be opened to those who would otherwise be eligible, and are in critical need.

HVAC Pushes Forward with Appeals Modernization in the 115th Congress

On May 2, 2017, the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs held a hearing on H.R. 2288, the “Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act of 2017.” The bill’s introduction follows on the heels of the recent Congressional round table hosted by the Chairman of the Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs, Mike Bost (R-IL). He and Ranking Member Elizabeth Esty (D-CT) are the original co-sponsors of the legislation.

The bill is an evolution from efforts throughout last year to present Congress with a new framework for processing disability claims and appeals. Much of the criticism last year dealt with the lack of a plan for implementation, a comprehensive risk assessment, and an understanding of what resources would be needed. There must be enough resources to ensure that VA does not leave behind veterans already who are already waiting while it starts a new program. PVA supports the new framework, and we also support this legislation’s requirements for extensive reporting by VA as it moves forward with implementation.

It is notable that the House and Senate have been working closely on this legislation, and shortly after the hearing it was announced that the Senate would be introducing a companion version of the House bill that has bipartisan and bicameral support.

PVA’s full statement for the record can be viewed at: http://docs.house.gov/Committee/Calendar/ByEvent.aspx?EventID=105902

VA Adopts New Standards for Medical Diagnostic Equipment

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) will adopt new accessibility standards issued by the U.S. Access Board to ensure access to medical diagnostic equipment (MDE) at its health care facilities. Under an agreement governing acquisition, the VA will require that new equipment meet the MDE standards which were published in January of this year. The VA’s health care network, the largest integrated health care system in the U.S., includes 152 medical centers, nearly 800 community-based outpatient clinics, and over 125 nursing home care units.

Access to MDE has been problematic for people with disabilities, including those who use wheelchairs and other mobility aids. The Board’s standards provide design criteria for examination tables and chairs, including those used for dental or optical exams, weight scales, radiological equipment, mammography equipment and other equipment used for diagnostic purposes by health professionals.

The MDE standards, as issued by the Board, are not mandatory unless adopted by a federal agency. The VA’s use of these standards will help it meet responsibilities under section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act which requires access to federally funded programs and services. Other entities, including health care providers and state and local governments, can voluntarily adopt and apply the standards as well.

For further information on the MDE standards, visit the Board’s website or contact Earlene Sesker at sesker@access-board.gov, (202) 272-0022 (v), or (202) 272-0091 (TTY). Questions about the new VA acquisition policy should be directed to Laurence Meyer at Laurence.Meyer@va.gov.

House Passes American Health Care Act

On May 4, 2017, the U. S. House of Representatives passed H. R. 1628, the American Health Care Act (AHCA), by a vote of 217 to 213. The bill would significantly modify the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), also known as Obamacare. Twenty Republicans joined all of the Democrats in the House in voting against the measure. The bill is not a complete repeal of the ACA, as has been promised by Republicans for seven years, but deals only with those parts of the ACA with budgetary implications in order for the Senate to pass it with a simple majority vote, a process none as reconciliation.

The AHCA reduces funding for subsidies provided under the ACA to make health insurance coverage purchased through the health exchanges more affordable and tilts the benefits of those subsidies toward younger people. However, it also creates tax credits that would be available to people to purchase health plans outside the exchanges. The measure eliminates a number of taxes, including those on health insurers, under the ACA that were designed to pay for its provisions. Instead of a mandate that individuals carry health insurance, H.R. 1628 would allow insurers to charge those with coverage gaps longer than 63 days a one-year, 30 percent surcharge on their insurance premiums. In addition, the House bill cuts over $800 billion from Medicaid over ten years and, in 2020, would end the ACA’s expansion of Medicaid through which some 11 million Americans have gained health care coverage. The bill also eliminates funding for several public health programs aimed at preventing bioterrorism and disease outbreaks.

The AHCA would make a number of changes to the types of health insurance plans that would be available by changing the rules governing protections for those with pre-existing conditions and by eliminating requirements that health plans cover certain benefits. States would be allowed to seek a waiver from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) so that insurers could charge higher premiums to those with pre-existing conditions. If HHS does not respond to a state’s request within 60 days, those changes would automatically go into effect. As part of a waiver application, states would have to set up a high risk insurance pool or design a subsidy program of their own for residents with pre-existing conditions who might be priced out of the insurance market as a result of the waiver.

In a letter to the House, PVA expressed concern about a number of the provisions in H.R. 1628 that could have harmful effects on veterans and people with disabilities. Under the bill’s changes to financing of Medicaid, the federal government would no longer share in the costs of providing health care services and community services beyond a capped amount. This would eliminate the enhanced federal match for the Community First Choice Option under Medicaid that provides attendant care services in the community. Thanks to this program, many poor veterans with serious non-service connected disabilities have been able to move from nursing homes into their communities. Data from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation shows that the Medicaid expansion that would be eliminated by the bill has helped thousands of veterans and their caregivers.

By allowing states to seek waivers that would permit insurers to charge higher premiums to people with pre-existing conditions, people with disabilities and expensive health conditions could again be exposed to significantly higher medical costs. The waivers would also relieve states of the ACA’s requirement that certain essential health benefits must be provided, including crucial services for people with disabilities such as prescription drugs, rehabilitative and habilitative services and devices, preventative and wellness services and chronic disease management. In combination, these changes would very likely make it difficult for people with pre-existing conditions to find affordable plans that cover basic health care services.

For veterans and PVA members in particular, the AHCA continues several problematic policies of the ACA as well as troubling new provisions that could affect the ability of many veterans and their family members to afford health insurance in the private market. Those provisions include:

• Retains coverage of adults up to age 26 on parents’ health policies but continues to exclude CHAMPVA beneficiaries—dependents of the most catastrophically disabled veterans—from this benefit.

• Fails to remove the prohibition on enrollment into the VA health care system for Priority Group 8 veterans, thus denying these veterans access to a viable option for health care.

• Offers tax credits meant to make health insurance affordable to anyone except those eligible for a host of other federal health programs, including those “eligible” for coverage under Title 38 health care programs. This would prevent many veterans who may be “eligible for” but not enrolled in the VA health care system from accessing these tax credits intended to help people buy insurance.

The Senate has begun to discuss parameters of a health care reform bill but is not expected to use H.R. 1628 as the basis for its efforts. Over the coming months, PVA plans to reach out to the Senate committee leadership involved in developing its legislation to ensure that veterans and people with disabilities are not disadvantaged in the process.

March Washington Update

March 17, 2017                                                                Volume 23, 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 Annual Advocacy and Legislation Seminar

The PVA Government Relations Department held its annual Advocacy and Legislation Seminar, from March 6-9, 2017, in Washington, D.C. The seminar serves as an opportunity to bring in representatives from every PVA chapter to Washington to learn about the policy priorities of the organization and then to carry that message to their representatives and senators in Congress.

This year’s seminar focused on two main areas. The Advocacy portion discussed in great detail our continued efforts, and the work we have ahead of us, on the Air Carrier Access Act, and efforts to improve air travel for people with disabilities. A panel of experts we have worked with on this issue included representatives from the Department of Transportation, Virgin America Airlines, and the Flight Attendants Association. Government Relations’ Advocacy staff also discussed entitlement reform, specifically Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, as well efforts to undermine the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) known as ADA notification.

The Legislative portion of the seminar focused significant attention on the delivery of veterans’ health care, particularly in the area of specialized services such as spinal cord injury and disease (SCI/D) care. Attendees had the opportunity to hear from Dr. Manosha Wickremasinghe, the incoming Executive Director of the Spinal Cord Injury/Disease Service at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). There were several discussions about the many ideas being proposed for VA health care in the future and how that might impact SCI/D care. Government Relations’ Legislative staff also discussed appeals reform as well as the expansion of the Comprehensive Family Caregiver Program at VA.

PVA members then spent two days storming the halls of Congress to discuss our policy priorities. In addition to our members meeting with members of the House and Senate, on March 9, PVA National President Al Kovach, Jr. presented his annual testimony before a joint hearing of the House and Senate Committees on Veterans’ Affairs.

He emphasized the importance of VA health care to him personally following his injury. The seminar wrapped up with a Congressional reception that evening to allow PVA members to continue to interact with congressional staff from both the House and Senate.

This year’s seminar was a major success. National staff has already begun outreach to offices that have expressed an interest in advancing our priorities. We were also able to increase digital engagement with the organization and we leveraged the PVA app to communicate much of our information quickly and effectively. The inclusion of state-specific information on the VA’s SCI/D service proved very useful in our members’ meetings with their representatives and senators. We are already beginning our planning for the 2018 Advocacy and Legislation Seminar.

House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Holds Hearing on

Community Care

On March 7, 2017, the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs (HVAC) held a hearing entitled, “Shaping the Future: Consolidating and Improving VA Community Care.” With the Choice program set to expire on August 7, 2017, HVAC Chairman Phil Roe (R-TN) sponsored a bill, H.R. 369, which would eliminate the mandatory expiration date for the program, allowing it to continue to deliver health care services to veterans in the community and use up the remaining funds in the program. New funds will eventually be needed, though, and with that request a much-needed revamp of the Choice program – Choice 2.0 as Secretary Shulkin called it during the hearing.

During the hearing, Secretary Shulkin made a number of commitments indicating a continued preference of strengthening the VA health care system’s ability to deliver direct care and developing an integrated network of providers to help fill gaps in service throughout the country. Over the last two years, much controversy has surrounded the issue of granting veterans unfettered choice of where they receive care. This proposal has proven cost-prohibitive. As a result, the administration, VA and other stakeholders are coalescing around the idea of fitting greater expansion of veterans’ choice into a consolidated community care program that utilizes an integrated network of providers.

In a markup the day after the Choice hearing, the Committee added two provisions to H.R. 369 that would give VA the ability to become the primary payer as well as share certain limited patient information with community care doctors treating veterans without seeking the veteran’s affirmative consent. VA has long asked for these provisions since putting forth its community care consolidation plan back in October 2015. VA serving as primary payer will hopefully alleviate the many instances where community care providers turn medical bills over to the veteran when VA takes too long to pay for services.

The hearing also drew two major announcements from the Secretary, one of which received a standing ovation. The first is that VA plans to get away from developing its own IT solutions and start purchasing more commercial off-the-shelf products. The second, and perhaps even more substantial announcement, was that VA will begin offering mental health care services to veterans who received an other-than-honorable discharge from the military. The logistics, timeframe and other eligibility details were not discussed, but VA’s decision to not wait for Congress to force the issue through legislation drew significant praise from the Committee.

PVA Presents Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) the 2017 Gordon H. Mansfield Congressional Leadership Award

On March 9, 2016, Paralyzed Veterans of America honored Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) with the 2017 Gordon H. Mansfield Congressional Leadership Award. Senator Murray and her staff have worked tirelessly with PVA’s Government Relations staff to advance and see implemented the legislation that enables VA to provide in vitro fertilization (IVF) to eligible veterans and their spouses. These long-awaited procreative services finally became available to veterans on January 19 of this year, and are approved through September 30, 2018.

Senator Murray has been a champion of IVF for veterans for years. Yet her persistence that Congress do the right thing never wavered. She continues to lead the effort to see that IVF become a permanent benefit.

The Gordon H. Mansfield Congressional Leadership Award is named for the Honorable Gordon Mansfield, former Acting Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs and Executive Director of Paralyzed Veterans. The award reflects upon his services as the former Assistant Secretary for Congressional and Legislative Affairs at the VA, and Paralyzed Veterans’ first associate executive director of government relations. The late Mr. Mansfield was a combat-injured Vietnam veteran who was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.

Senator Murray was notified of the award earlier this year, and was presented with it March 9th at a private meeting during Paralyzed Veterans of America’s annual Advocacy/Legislation Week. The Senator issued the following statement of recognition: “Military families sacrifice so much on our behalf, and they deserve to know their country will be there for them, no matter what. Making sure veterans and their spouses have access to reproductive assistance is just one way we can fulfill that promise, and I couldn’t be more proud to have Paralyzed Veterans of America by my side as we work together to make sure we are doing everything we can for the men and women who sacrifice so much in their service to our country.”

Caregiver Expansion Bill Introduced

On March 9, 2016, Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) introduced S. 591 and Rep. Jim Langevin (D-RI) introduced the house companion bill, H.R. 1472, the “Military and Veteran Caregiver Services Improvement Act.” This bipartisan legislation would expand VA’s Comprehensive Family Caregiver Program to veterans of all eras. Currently, a veteran has to have been severely injured on or after September 11, 2001 in order to be eligible. Expansion would make available the resources that caregivers need to provide quality care to veterans. These resources include a monthly stipend based on the hours of care provided, healthcare through CHAMPVA, respite care, and additional training among other services.

Caregivers play the most critical role in the wellbeing of a catastrophically disabled veteran. From activities of daily living, to psycho-social interaction, to maintaining good health that prevents institutional care- these caregivers have been sacrificing their own financial and physical wellbeing to care for veterans, with little to no support from VA. Congress has no justification for denying access to pre-9/11 veterans. This legislation would rectify this inequity.

Among other things, the Military and Veteran Caregiver Services Improvement Act would:

  • Make the program more inclusive of mental health injuries.
  • Reauthorize the Lifespan Respite Care Act and expand essential respite options for caregivers.
  • Give veterans the opportunity to transfer GI Bill benefits to a dependent, to help unemployed or underemployed spouses of injured veterans prepare to become the primary income for the family.
  • Make caregivers who work in the federal government eligible for flexible work schedules.
  • Provide assistance with childcare, financial advice and legal counseling, which are all top, and currently unmet, needs.

We urge all PVA members to contact their senators and ask them to support S. 591 and contact their representatives and ask them to support H.R. 1472. These bills will have a significant impact on our members, many of whom rely upon caregivers on a daily basis.

PVA Prosthetics Consultant Participates in Brain Awareness

Week Program

The National Museum of Health and Medicine hosted its 18th annual Brain Awareness Week (BAW) program March 13 -17, 2017. The museum wanted to showcase the DEKA Robotic Arm in an exhibit called “Advances in Military Medicine”. Fred Downs, PVA Prosthetics Consultant, provided live demonstrations of the DEKA Robotic Arm to the students. Mr. Downs described how he dons the arm, and demonstrated how he controlled the arm and hand with movements of his feet to which inertial measurement units (IMU) are attached. The IMUs send wireless signals to 10 computers in the arm that move the elbow and hand into different positions and grips. He uses the various functions they perform to increase his independence.

During BAW, the Museum invites middle school students to visit the museum to learn about neuroscience from a variety of professionals through hands-on interactions. The museum will host about 120 students per day (60 in a morning session and 60 in an afternoon session) who rotate through 5-6 activity stations for about 15 minutes per station. The goal is to provide an opportunity to use STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math) to inspire students to pursue studies and careers in the sciences.

The museum has both DOD and civilian partners who help share excitement about the neurosciences with the students to include the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center Speech and Audiology Clinics, Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center, Uniformed Services University, Society for Neuroscience, Howard University, Rutgers, Congressionally Directed Medical Research Programs, and NIH. These BAW partners are engaged in some of the most cutting edge brain science research in the country. Brain Awareness Week at the National Museum of Health and Medicine highlights that research and promotes the field as a career option.

DOT Delays Implementation of Final Rule Requiring US Airlines

to Report Wheelchair Data

On March 2, 2017, the Department of Transportation (DOT) announced that it will delay the implementation by one-year of the final rule requiring large domestic airlines to track and report information about wheelchairs and scooters. The rule was published on November 2, 2016, and went into effect on December 2, 2016.

As originally published, airlines would be required to provide DOT with information on the total number of wheelchairs and scooters they enplane on a monthly basis for flights taking place on or after January 1, 2018. Airlines would also need to report how many of those wheelchairs and scooters were “mishandled.” The new date for implementation announced by DOT is January 1, 2019.

DOT took this action in response to a request from airlines to delay the implementation of the regulation in the spirit of a memorandum issued by the White House Chief of Staff on January 20. In part, the memorandum directed agencies to delay for 60 days the effective date of published regulations that had not yet taken effect.

PVA believes that delaying the reporting requirement for wheelchair and scooter data in the spirit of this memorandum was an overly broad interpretation of its application. The regulation had already been in effect for nearly 90 days when DOT announced its intent to delay implementation. Furthermore, DOT took this action without providing all stakeholders with a formal opportunity to comment.

PVA has communicated our concerns about the delay publicly and directly to DOT. We will continue to closely follow this matter. At this time, the delay has not been published in the Federal Register.

PVA Trains Wheelchair Attendants for Virgin America Airlines

On March 8, 2017, Senior Associate Advocacy Director Lee Page and Heather Ansley, Associate General Counsel for Corporate and Government Relations, met with representatives from Virgin America Airlines at Reagan National Airport (DCA) in Washington, D.C. The meeting was at Virgin’s request so we could facilitate a discussion around the boarding process and demonstrate proper technics for transfers in and out of an aisle chair. Virgin America contracts with Huntleigh USA Corp. at Reagan National for wheelchair assistance to assist passengers with disabilities in boarding and deplaning as part of their responsibility under the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA).

After introductions, Mr. Page and Ms. Ansley thoroughly explained the ACAA as well as the legal responsibilities of the airline, Virgin America and their contractor Huntleigh, for what services are required to be provided to qualified passengers with disabilities. Mr. Page with the assistance of Huntleigh personnel demonstrated proper transfer technics on and off an aisle chair that was provided. Whereas Huntleigh personnel knew what to do in the transfers, Mr. Page emphasized that they need to take direction from the passenger with the disability;

The discussion lasted about two hours and there were around 25 participants from Virgin America, Huntleigh and a few representatives of Alaska Airlines, which is buying Virgin America. PVA will continue to work with Virgin America and Alaska Airlines to create future opportunities to educate personnel on the specific needs of passengers with disabilities.

October Washington Update

October 18, 2016 Volume 22, No. 10

***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.

Congress Approves CR, Includes PVA Priorities

Prior to recessing for the November election at the end of September, Congress approved H.R. 5325, the “Continuing Appropriations and Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Appropriations Act for FY 2017,” that included full-year funding for the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). The bill contains three very important priorities for PVA. These include:

1. Reinstatement of the annual capacity reporting requirement. While a date for implementation has not been established, this is an important accomplishment that will bolster the work done by the PVA Medical Services site visit teams.
2. Authorization of the provision of reproductive services through VA, to include in vitro fertilization (IVF). This has long been a high priority for PVA. For the first time, veterans with service-connected catastrophic disabilities that preclude them from having children will have access to reproductive services through the VA. Unfortunately, we will have to defeat an amendment included in the Labor/HHS Appropriations bill, introduced by Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD), that risks undermining the authority to provide IVF services both at VA as well as the Department of Defense.
3. Beneficiary travel for “some” non-service connected catastrophically disabled veterans, including those with SCI, blindness and amputation. The language in the bill states that it can be provided to those who travel to an inpatient rehabilitation facility, such as an SCI center, and are admitted for overnight stay or provided temporary lodging. Assuming appropriate interpretation, this should at least open the opportunity for beneficiary travel for PVA members receiving annual physicals; however, we do not believe it authorizes beneficiary travel for non-service connected veterans for same-day appointments. Additionally, it remains to be seen when this benefit will actually go into effect. We will obviously have to track implementation of this closely.

Sarah Dean, PVA Associate Legislative Director, deserves a great deal of credit for her tireless work on the capacity reporting issue and the IVF provisions specifically. Hard work remains to ensure that proper implementation of these important provisions occurs. This will be particularly true of the capacity report and the beneficiary travel provisions, which I anticipate VA will be resistant to acting on.

Legislation Stalled in the Senate

While key provisions were included in the CR, the lack of compromise generally led to a number of important pieces of legislation being left unfinished. Perhaps the biggest issue that has yet to be resolved is the appeals reform included in H.R. 5620, the “Accountability First and Appeals Reform Act,” introduced by House VA Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-FL). That legislation also included strong accountability measures for VA staff. The legislation passed the House in September with strong bipartisan support, but it is being held up in the Senate, primarily over disagreements on the accountability provisions.

Our work also continues on H.R. 3471, the “Veterans Mobility Safety Act.” While we were able to get it passed in the Senate, there has been continued resistance in the Senate. However, Gabe Stultz, Associate Legislative Director, has worked closely with Senator Jerry Moran’s (R-KS) office and they are prepared to move an amended version of H.R. 3471 that will satisfy all interested parties when Congress returns after the election.

Finally, the Senate has been unable to advance S. 2921, the “Veterans First Act.” Of highest importance to PVA in that legislation is provisions that will expand access to the Comprehensive Family Caregiver program to veterans of all eras, not just those injured after September 11, 2001. Unfortunately, cost remains a hurdle to advancing that effort. Additionally, provisions that are generally perceived to water down accountability, per the request of the government unions, have led a stalemate over the bill.

We anticipate a lot of focus on appeals reform and accountability when Congress returns for a lame duck session after the election in November.

DOT ACCESS Committee Completes Work

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Advisory Committee on Accessible Air Transportation (ACCESS Committee) completed its business on Friday, October 14, 2016. The 25 member Committee was charged with negotiating in good faith to reach consensus on a proposed rule addressing inflight entertainment, service animals, and accessible lavatories on single aisle aircraft. The department intends to use the consensus agreement from the ACCESS Committee as the basis for a proposed rule. After six months’ worth of work, there were varying degrees of success. The Committee focused on three key areas—lavatories, service animals, and inflight entertainment. The following is a review of that work.

Lavatories

The Committee reached consensus that all new aircraft of a certain size shall have accessible lavatories by a certain date. Recognizing that a prior committee failed in this process in 1993 and that there is expense to the industry in complying, the Committee adopted a two tiered approach in providing accessible lavatories on new single aisle aircraft.

The first tier includes all new aircraft delivered three years after the effective date of the final rule. The second tier includes aircraft that are ordered 18 years and delivered 20 or more years after the effective date of the final rule; or are a new type design for which application is filed with the FAA or a foreign carrier civil aviation authority more than 1 year after the effective date of the final rule. Both tiers have multiple levels of access for passengers with disabilities. Access that begins in the first tier carries over into the second tier of accessibility.

Specifically, the first tier applies to all carriers operating aircraft that have FAA-certified maximum passenger capacity of 60 or more seats. This will include flight attendant training on an annual basis to proficiency in use of the new DOT onboard wheelchair and assembly or modifications to the accessible features of the lavatory. Carriers must also provide information upon request to passengers with disability concerning the accessible features of the lavatory including controls and dispensers and the information must be on the carrier’s website, in electronic or printed forms with picture diagrams, on the aircraft. Carrier will also remove the international symbol of accessibility (ISA) from all lavatories new and in service that cannot facilitate an independent seated transfer.

All first and second tier aircraft with FAA-certified maximum passenger capacity of 125 or more seats will have at least one lavatory that meets the following specifications. The aircraft shall have a standard toilet seat height ranging from 17-19 inches high, assist handles that support 250 pounds and an array of controls and dispensers that are tactilely accessible and measured for a performance specification that meets the definition of a person with a disability in a seated position. These interior lavatory components include: attendant call buttons, door lock, flush control, faucet controls, paper towel and soap dispensers, and trash and bio waste units. All components where reasonably available in supplier catalogs shall be operable with one hand and shall not require tight grasping, pinching, or twisting of the wrist.

Other features that will apply to a first tier aircraft include a visual barrier that shall be available upon request. It will provide passengers with disabilities using the lavatory (with the door possibly open) a level of privacy substantially equivalent to that provided to ambulatory users. Most importantly is a door sill or threshold that provides minimum obstruction to the passage of the on board wheelchair across the sill while preventing leakage of fluid or causing a tripping hazard during evacuation. The door sill threshold applies to both tiers of access.

New covered single aisle aircraft with FAA-certified maximum passenger capacity of 125 or more seats entering service three years after the effective date of the final rule must have onboard wheelchairs that meet new standards to be developed by DOT. DOT will consult with advocates, airlines, wheelchair manufacturers, flight attendants and other stake holders in developing these standards. The purpose of the onboard wheelchair standards is to improve the safety of traditional models of onboard wheelchairs and develop, if feasible, specifications for an over-the-toilet onboard wheelchair design. The target date to complete the onboard wheelchair standards is February 2017.
Second tier aircraft with FAA-certified maximum passenger capacity of 125 or more seats in which lavatories are provided will be required to have one lavatory of sufficient size / design to permit a passenger with a disability to perform a seated independent and dependent transfer from the onboard wheelchair to and from the toilet within a closed space that affords to persons using the onboard wheelchair privacy equal to that afforded by ambulatory passengers. To ensure these new lavatories meet the performance specifications they will be designed/modeled with the 95 percent male (6’2, 246lbs) and 5 percent female (4’11,125lbs) range to meet the required transfers, including the use of a 95 percent male to assist a dependent 95 percent male with a transfer from the onboard wheelchair to and from to toilet within the closed lavatory space.

The committee reached a consensus vote of 17 for the agreement, 1 no vote and 3 abstentions. PVA supported this agreement as first tier accessibility will provide increased access to lavatories in the short-term and ensure full-access at a time-certain in the future.

Service Animals

Despite good faith negotiations, the ACCESS Committee reached an impasse in its efforts to come to a consensus on revising the definition of a service animal and the requirements for access for those animals under the ACAA.

The impasse resulted due to an inability to find a suitable alternative to current regulations which allow airlines to request as a condition of access that users of psychiatric and emotional support animals provide current documentation from a mental health professional stating that they have a mental or emotional disability for which they need the animal. Airlines and advocates considered imposition of a requirement for all service animal and emotional support animal users to complete an attestation confirming that they were a person with a disability and that the animal was needed either in flight or at the destination due to the disability. The proposed attestation would also have alerted the individual to the possibility that attempting to pass a pet as a service animal or emotional support animal could result in penalties. Ultimately, we were unable to find a solution that would free psychiatric and emotional support animal users from the burdens of medical documentation without imposing new, unacceptable burdens on all service animal users.

Another issue that remains unresolved is the types of species of service animals that should be allowed under the ACAA. Currently, domestic carriers are never required to permit access for unusual service animals such as snakes, rodents, and spiders, but must otherwise permit access for service animals unless the carrier determines that there are factors that preclude the animal from traveling in the cabin. Foreign carriers do not have to provide access to service animal species other than dogs. Stakeholders generally agreed that dogs, miniature horses, and capuchin monkeys should be classified as service animals. An unresolved question remained whether cats should also be included.
In addition, stakeholders were unable to resolve whether emotional support animals should continue to have access. Under the ACAA, the definition of service animal includes emotional supports animals. Stakeholders considered removing emotional support animals from the definition and reclassifying those and other similar animals as “support animals.” Species considered for support animals included dogs, cats, and rabbits. Those animals would have had more limited access than service animals as in many cases they would have been required to travel in a pet-carrier but still able to perform disability mitigation, if needed.

In light of the failure of these negotiations to reach consensus, DOT will now be charged with developing a proposed rule on this issue. The efforts of disability advocates, including PVA, have provided DOT with significant insight. We look forward to weighing in with DOT to ensure that any proposed rule preserves the access rights of all service animal users.

Inflight Entertainment

The ACCESS Committee still has work to do in trying to reach consensus on the issue of accessible inflight entertainment and communication. Currently, airlines are not providing captioning for the deaf or audio description for the blind on movies or television shows packaged by the airlines for inflight entertainment. The problem revolves around technical hardware and software mechanical issues of the seatback display systems that in service airplanes use. The work group on inflight entertainment and communication will meet November 2, 2016 to finish their negotiation in hopes of reaching a consensus.

The DOT Facilitators’ report is due in early December. The report will reflect the entire work of the ACCESS Committee in the three areas they were charged to reach agreement on and all public documents that were sent to the Committee in support of the issues. The DOT onboard wheelchair standards are due in February 2017 and the Department hopes to publish a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in the Federal Register by the end of June 2017.

PVA Participates in Suicide Roundtable Discussion
On September 23, 2016, VA gathered a large group of veterans’ service organizations (VSOs) to discuss opportunities for collaboration and some of the salient issues with regard to confronting veteran suicide. The primary issues discussed related to both identifying at risk veterans and getting those veterans to engage in VA-provided services. An additional challenge is that even if veterans are identified, not all are eligible for care.

VA discussed briefly the mental health summits that it is holding throughout all VAMCs. The American Legion mentioned that many of their NSOs were not made aware of these summits, and the opportunity for VSOs to reach out to their local members was lost. VA will reevaluate its communications with VSOs for the summits, and they provided the upcoming schedule of all summits so that VSOs can alert their field offices.

VA also explained briefly some of their efforts to assist families of veterans who are contemplating suicide and community providers handling veteran patients contemplating suicide.

Ultimately, the forum was a chance for VA to ask PVA and our fellow VSOs as individual organizations to decide how we can partner with VA to reach veterans who are struggling. Suicide prevention materials being shared publicly by the VA can be viewed at the video links below:

• Newest Suicide Prevention PSA “Be There: Help Save a Life”: https://youtube/MCSZ7FjTq5I
• Suicide Prevention PSA “I’m good. But are you ready to listen?”: https://youtu.be/YPFo9EvUUvA
• Suicide Prevention PSA “The Power of 1”: https://youtu.be/WSx11Kmnmrg
• Veterans Crisis Line – After the Call: https://youtu.be/l8cQHTzZTIs

Deadline for Claims in Department of Justice’s Historic Settlement with Greyhound for ADA Violations Approaching

On February 8, 2016, the Department of Justice announced a consent decree resolving a complaint against Greyhound for alleged violations under the Americans with Disabilities (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 be required to compensate travelers with disabilities who experienced disability discrimination while traveling or attempting to travel on Greyhound.

The deadline for passengers with disabilities who encountered disability-related discrimination on Greyhound to submit a claim for compensation is November 10, 2016.
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. To contact the Claims Administrator, please call 1-844-502-5953 or by email at GRYsettlement@classactionadmin.com.

ADA Notification Act Legislation Introduced in the Senate

On September 28, 2016, Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) introduced S. 3446, the “ADA Education and Reform Act of 2016.” This legislation 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. Sen. Flake’s legislation is a companion bill to H.R. 3765, which was introduced by Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX) and passed by the House Judiciary Committee in July. Despite concerns that H.R. 3765 might be brought to the House floor for a vote in September, no further action on this legislation has occurred.
PVA strongly opposes proposed ADA notification requirements. Notification laws put the onus on the person with a disability to find ADA violations and notify a public accommodation of those violations. No other civil rights group is forced to shoulder the burden of triggering compliance with the law and, once they have done so, to wait to enforce their civil rights. Accessibility standards, such as those the ADA includes, are extremely important. 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.

OFCCP Hosts Business Roundtable for National Disability Employment Awareness Month

On October 6, 2016, the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP) hosted a forum highlighting successful business strategies for outreach to and recruitment of people with disabilities into the nation’s workforce. OFCCP is the agency within the Department of Labor (DOL) responsible for enforcing government contractors’ compliance with Section 503 and VEVRAA. Those regulations require federal contractors to take affirmative steps to recruit and hire people with disabilities and certain targeted veterans, including those with disabilities. The roundtable was part of OFCCP’s observance of National Disability Employment Awareness Month and brought together representatives of companies that have excelled in making disability inclusion a vital part of their workforce diversity efforts.

In a keynote address, Robert J. O’Hara, Vice President with United Technologies Corp., expressed support for the regulations that require companies to document their progress in bringing more people with disabilities into their operations. He also described challenges they encountered in broadening their disability outreach including appropriate ways to encourage people to identify as someone with a disability and connecting with talent pipelines to find qualified applicants. Among the strategies that worked for UT and for others at the forum were participation in networking conferences sponsored by organizations such as U.S. Business Leadership Network and National Organization on Disability, creating partnerships with universities to reach students with disabilities, and involvement of top corporate leadership in disability inclusion efforts.

For more information about DOL initiatives undertaken for National Disability Employment Awareness Month go to https://www.dol.g

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.

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.

 

 

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.