November Washington Update

November 15, 2017​​​​​​​​            Volume 23, Number 11
***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.

House VA Committee Conducts Hearing to Review Choice Reform Legislation

On October 24, 2017, the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs conducted a legislative hearing to examine a number of important proposals. The hearing included two very important draft bills that offered direction for the reform of the Choice program administered by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Paralyzed Veterans of America submitted a statement for the record for the hearing.

The focus of our testimony was on the draft bill presented by the House VA Committee—a bill that would eventually become H.R. 4242, the “VA Care in the Community Act”—and on the draft bill presented by the VA—the “Veteran Coordinated Access & Rewarding Experiences (CARE) Act.’’ PVA did not explicitly oppose either draft bill as presented.

We also emphasized in our testimony that before the Committee takes steps to reform the delivery of veterans’ health care in the community, it is important to affirm that specialized services are part of the core mission and responsibility of VA. In recent months, VA has indicated that, along with improving the delivery of care in the community to veterans, it plans to concentrate on expanding and improving what it considers “foundational services.” The Secretary has indicated that it considers spinal cord injury and disease (SCI/D) care and blinded care foundational services. However, he must make that policy unequivocally clear to all networks and all facilities. Additionally, we do not believe foundational services end with just those areas; there are many areas of service within VA that inform the principle of veteran-centric care. We appreciate the fact that the Secretary has committed to expanding SCI/D nurse staffing by approximately 1,000 new positions. These concerns about foundational services cannot be dismissed simply in the interest of focusing attention on more community care.

Congress should examine more closely how VA will monitor the quality of care veterans are receiving in the community. This question goes beyond a plan for care coordination. If VA is unprepared to retain ownership of responsibility for care delivered in the private sector, Congress will be helpless in conducting adequate oversight. PVA believes that the Committee and VA need to seriously consider the consequences for veterans when they are injured during the course of their treatment in the community. When veterans receive treatment at a VA medical center, they are protected in the event that some additional disability or health problem is incurred. Under 38 U.S.C. § 1151, veterans can file claims for disability as a result of medical malpractice that occurs in a VA facility or as a result of care delivered by a VA provider.

When PVA questioned VA as to whether these protections are conferred to veterans being treated in the community, VA officials confirmed in writing that this protection, as a matter of law, does not attach to the veteran in such circumstances. We continue to advocate for the inclusion of this protection in any final bill considered by the Committee. Unfortunately, the bill being considered in the House does not include these provisions.

PVA strongly supports the concept of developing a high-performing integrated health care network that would seamlessly combine the capabilities of the VA health care system with both public and private health care providers in the community. We believe that the design and development of VA’s network must be locally driven using national guidance, and it must reflect the demographics and availability of resources within that area. VA has taken the first steps toward this goal by conducting its pilot market assessments using three individual VHA facilities and their surrounding health care markets.

PVA also supports the Secretary’s plan to move the Department away from the current 30-day/40-mile eligibility standards in favor of a case-by-case clinical determination. The Committee’s draft bill targets the same desired end goal. Access decisions dictated by arbitrary wait times and geographic distances have no comparable industry practices in the private sector. This change would shift the organizational mindset and focus of VA to clinical outcomes instead of catering to arbitrary metrics governing access to care in the community. We have consistently advocated for this proposition before Congress and the administration, stating that eligibility and access to care in the community should be a clinically-based decision made between a veteran and his or her doctor. Establishing appropriate eligibility standards will be an integral part of a sustainable network.

The hearing agenda also included several other bills. PVA supported H.R. 1133, the “Veterans Transplant Coverage Act;” H.R. 2123, the “Veterans E-Health and Telemedicine Support (VETS) Act of 2017;” and H.R. 2601, the “Veterans Increased Choice for Transplanted Organs and Recover Act of 2017.” While we also supported the intent of H.R. 3642, the “Military Sexual Assault Victims Empowerment (SAVE) Act,” we expressed reservations about some of the underlying assumptions of the bill. Similarly, we expressed concerns about a draft bill that would require the Veterans Crisis Line to collect certain data from veterans who contact the line in crisis.

Subsequent to the hearing, the Committee attempted to mark-up H.R. 4242; however, a recent cost estimate provided by the Congressional Budget Office forced the Committee to withdraw the bill from consideration at this time.

PVA’s full written statement can be viewed at http://www.pva.org.

House of Representatives Passes Veterans Legislation

During the week of Veterans’ Day, the House of Representatives passed a long list of bills targeted at improving various services in the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). That list includes:

• H.R. 918, the “Veteran Urgent Access to Mental Healthcare Act.” This bill would require VA to provide an initial mental health assessment and any subsequent mental health services required to meet urgent mental health care needs to former service members who would otherwise be ineligible for
such services because they were discharged from military service under other than honorable (OTH) conditions.
• H.R. 1066, the “VA Management Alignment Act of 2017.” This bill would require VA to submit a report regarding the roles, responsibility, and accountability of elements and individuals of VA, using the findings of the Independent Assessment, the Commission on Care, and relevant GAO reports as resources.
• H.R. 1133, the “Veterans Transplant Coverage Act.” This bill would authorize VA to provide all care and services needed for a veteran to receive an organ transplant from a live donor, regardless of whether the donor is eligible for VA health care or whether the health care facility is part of the VA.
• H.R. 1900, the “National Veterans Memorial and Museum Act.” This bill would designate the Veterans Memorial and Museum in Columbus, Ohio, as the National Veterans Memorial and Museum.
• H.R. 2123, the “Veterans E-Health and Telemedicine Support Act (VETS) Act of 2017.” This bill would give the VA Secretary the legislative authority to allow VA providers to practice telemedicine across state lines.
• H.R. 2601, the “Veterans Increased Choice for Transplanted Organs and Recovery (VICTOR) Act.”
• H.R. 3122, the “Veterans Care Financial Protection Act of 2017.” This bill directs VA to work with federal agencies and states to develop and implement standards that protect individuals who are eligible for increased pension from dishonest, predatory or otherwise unlawful practices.
• H.R. 3562, a bill to authorize the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to furnish assistance for adaptations of residences of veterans in rehabilitation programs.
• H.R. 3634, “the Securing Electronic Records for Veterans Ease (SERVE) Act of 2017.” This bill would make BAH documentation available online to all veterans, which would help confirm a veteran’s monthly housing stipend and simplify their home or apartment rental process.
• H.R. 3656, a bill that would provide a headstone or marker for all eligible non-veterans who die on or after November 11, 1998.
• H.R. 3657, a bill that would authorize VA to provide headstones and markers to eligible spouses and dependents who are buried or interred at tribal veterans cemeteries.
• H.R. 3705, the “Veterans Fair Debt Notice Act.” This bill instructs VA to use plain language in its debt notices to provide a clear explanation of why VA is alleging that the veteran owes such a debt.
• H.R. 3949, the “Veteran Apprenticeship and Labor Opportunity Reform (VALOR) Act.” This bill would simplify an approval process by allowing companies to register their apprenticeship programs with one central approval agency.
• H.R. 4173, the “Veterans Crisis Line Study Act of 2017.” This bill would require VA to conduct a study on the outcomes and efficacy of the Veterans Crisis Line based on an analysis of national suicide data and data collected from the VCL.

PVA generally supported all of the bills that were considered and approved by the House. In testimony earlier this year, we did express concerns about the data collection process that would occur to support H.R. 4173, particularly what the impact might be of trying to obtain this type of information from veterans who are in crisis.

VA Considering Proposed Cuts to VA Special Purpose Funds

In October, PVA became aware of VA’s plan to move nearly $1 billion dedicated to programs such as Women’s Health, Mental Health, Research, and Suicide Prevention, to a general purpose fund for an unclear purpose. While the VA has claimed that it will be used to reinvest in “foundational services”—which includes spinal cord injury/disease care, there has been no guarantee that will actually occur at this point. It seems the real impact of this dramatic shift of funds from special purpose to general purpose is to provide more resources and flexibility to Veterans Integrated Service Networks (VISNs) and Medical Center Directors. PVA has long argued for the need for medical centers to be fully equipped to meet the needs of their patients. And while we understand the ultimate goal of this shift of resources we are deeply concerned by such a dramatic realignment of resources and the potential impact on veterans.

VA has not provided VSOs or Congress any detailed explanation for how the proposed cuts to critical programs will better serve veterans. Given the magnitude of the proposed repurposing and the potential to devastate critical programs, PVA and others in the VSO community have been diligently engaging with VA to pause the move until the extent of the impact is understood. Several members of Congress, including the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies have reached out to Secretary Shulkin as well to get clarification.

We will continue to monitor this action as the consequences for some key programs in VA could be severe. While VA has promised that “foundational services” will benefit from this shift, we do not believe that it should be at the expense of other critical services within VA.

PVA Hosts Roundtable with Senate Commerce Leaders on Air Travel Accessibility

On November 8, 2017, PVA hosted a roundtable with the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee on improving access to air travel for veterans with disabilities. The purpose of the roundtable discussion was to focus on how disability-related provisions in S. 1872, the “TSA Modernization Act,” and S. 1405, the “FAA Reauthorization Act of 2017,” would lay the ground work for ensuring safe and effective access to air travel for all people with disabilities. The roundtable provided an opportunity for PVA leaders to share their travel experiences and for Senators and staff to learn more about their concerns. Senators engaged leaders about the frequency of wheelchair damage, service animals, and the general accessibility of air travel.

PVA National President David L. Zurfluh, PVA National Secretary Larry Dodson, PVA National Vice President Charles Brown, and Interim Executive Director Carl Blake were joined at the event by Senate
Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune (R-SD), Ranking Member Bill Nelson (D-FL), and Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-IL). Heather Ansley, Associate General Counsel for Corporate and Government Relations and Lee Page, Senior Associate Advocacy Director, served as moderators for the event. Representatives for Wounded Warrior Project, the American Legion, and VetsFirst also participated.

PVA Hosts First Meeting of the RESNA Standards Committee on Air Travel

On November 7, 2017, PVA hosted the first meeting of the RESNA Standards Committee on Air Travel. The goal of the committee is to create air travel standards and guidelines for mobility devices, to include design, labeling, information cards, and airport personnel handling and training procedures. RESNA is a standards developing organization accredited by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI). The RESNA Assistive Technology Standards Board is the U.S. Technical Advisory Group to ANSI for the development of ISO (International Organization for Standardization) standards pertaining to assistive technology and other products for persons with disabilities.

PVA is an official member of the committee and works closely with the committee’s leadership. Moving forward, the committee plans to meet quarterly over the next year to work toward the goal of reducing damage to wheelchairs in air travel. PVA is joined by airlines, wheelchair manufactures, and other key stakeholders in these efforts.

Congress Prepares to Tackle Tax Reform by End of November

Efforts to make major changes in the tax code for the first time in 30 years recently moved forward in the House and Senate. As of press time for this newsletter, the House was preparing to vote on H.R. 1, the “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act,” while the Senate Finance Committee had begun working on its own version of the legislation with a vote expected in the full Senate after Thanksgiving. Proponents of these measures point to the anticipated economic growth that will ensue from reductions in corporate and individual tax rates and simplification of the tax code. Meanwhile, the nonpartisan Congressional Joint Committee on Taxation has produced analyses of the legislation showing almost 60 percent of U.S. households would see meaningful tax cuts in 2019. However, by 2027, because of changes to deductions and credits in the current tax code, less than half of Americans would experience a tax cut worth $100 or more, while about 1 in 5 would see their taxes go up compared with current law.

In a letter to the House Ways and Means Committee, PVA expressed strong opposition to provisions in the House bill that would eliminate several credits and deductions in the tax code of particular importance to veterans and people with disabilities. H.R. 1 would repeal the Work Opportunity Tax Credit that has helped companies hire almost 300,000 veterans with barriers to employment from 2013 to 2015.

The bill also would repeal the Disabled Access Tax Credit that was created in 1990 to help small businesses comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. In addition, the House measure would eliminate the medical expense deduction which has softened the burden of over 9 million households facing high costs associated with long term disabilities and illnesses.

The initial Senate Finance Committee chairman’s mark of the tax measure did not include repeal of these credits and deductions. However, Congress must ensure that the final tax bill adds no more than $1.5 trillion to the deficit, which was the limit fixed in the House and Senate budget resolutions.

As a result, the conference committee that will be appointed to reconcile the House and Senate tax bills will be under considerable pressure to eliminate deductions and credits that add to the measure’s costs. Nevertheless, PVA will continue to press its support for these tax credits and deductions that advance the economic independence and community integration of veterans and people with disabilities.

FAIR Heroes Act Introduced

On November 9, 2017, Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) and Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) introduced S. 2117, the “FAIR Heroes Act,” that would make veterans who were medically retired from the military eligible for both Medicare Part B and TRICARE, a health care program for retired veterans and their families, and allow them to choose which health plan works best for them. Under current law, veterans who receive Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits are required, by law, to purchase Medicare Part B coverage. In some cases, they must maintain that coverage even if they return to work. S. 2117 would give these veterans the choice to enroll in TRICARE instead of Medicare Part B. According to a press statement accompanying the bill’s introduction, this legislation could save many veterans up to $1,300 a year.

Currently, medically retired veterans who fail to purchase Medicare Part B coverage immediately upon becoming eligible, or who fail to maintain that coverage for at least eight years after returning to work, are forced to pay a late enrollment fee and higher premiums if they enroll in Medicare later in life. The late-enrollment penalty and higher premiums make Medicare coverage unaffordable for many of these veterans. The legislation seeks to change that, not only by giving these disabled veterans the option to enroll in TRICARE instead, but also by eliminating the eight-year Medicare requirement and late-enrollment penalties for those who were medically retired from the military.

PVA has endorsed this legislation because of many of our members are affected by this issue.

Advertisements

August Washington Update

August 14, 2017                                                                Volume 23, 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. 

Congress Approves Choice Funding Extension

Prior to leaving for the August recess, the House of Representatives and Senate approved legislation that would provide additional funding to keep the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Choice program operating. Due to significant increases in utilization of the Choice program over the last 6 months, the VA faced the prospect of the program running out of funding by August 15th. In an effort to relieve that problem, Congress approved a bill that provides approximately $2.1 billion to keep the Choice program running for an additional six months. The bill also includes funding to open 28 capital leases that have been held up for budget reasons for nearly two years, as well as provisions to improve workforce innovation, recruitment and retention of providers in the VA health care system.

Unfortunately, Congress will be forced to deal with this issue again six months from now. A long term solution for how VA will manage its community care programs, which includes the current Choice program, has not been finalized. Meanwhile, the House and Senate Committees on Veterans’ Affairs are already developing their own legislative solutions to community care. They range from VA coordinating all community care decisions to veterans having unfettered choice to decide when and where they will seek care.

PVA has already testified on a couple of occasions this year on the future of the Choice program. In the spring, the VA unveiled its own C.A.R.E. program that it hopes to make the basis of all of its community care going forward. However, much work remains to reach a consensus on the final program, to include how VA will invest in and sustain its “foundational commitments” (spinal cord injury/disease care, blinded rehabilitation, prosthetics, etc).

Congress Approves Permanent Change to the Post-9/11 GI Bill

The latest update to the Post-9/11 GI Bill made its way through Congress prior to the August recess and now awaits the President’s signature. The “Harry W. Colmery Veterans Education Assistance Act of 2017,” wielded strong bipartisan support throughout both chambers of Congress allowing the bill to be fast-tracked to the President’s desk. After a unanimous vote in the House, the Senate followed suit by passing the bill by voice vote.

The bill’s namesake, the Forever GI Bill, comes from the elimination of the “use it or lose it rule” that requires the benefit to be used within fifteen years. In today’s world, it is common for veterans to make career changes later in life. This makes it all the more important to retain education benefits that can help facilitate successful transitions. One significant change makes all Purple Heart recipients eligible for 100 percent of the benefit. Because the benefit percentages are based on time in service, veterans removed from service due to wounds sustained in combat were often unable to reach the full 100 percent rating.

The bill addresses a number of other inadvertent inequities as well. One deals with the Fry Scholarship. Surviving spouses and children of service members who die in the line of duty after September 10, 2001, who are utilizing the GI Bill to attend school are currently ineligible for the Yellow Ribbon Program which fills the gap between the GI Bill benefit amount and full tuition at private institutions. Another oversight in the original law precluded reservists mobilized in support of a Department of Defense (DOD) combatant command and when Governors’ request federal assistance in responding to major disasters or emergencies from counting that service time for eligibility.

Other changes include a long-overdue increase in monthly payments for Dependents’ Education Assistance (DEA) by approximately $200. However, the eligibility time period will be reduced from 45 months to 36 months. Most, if not all, GI Bill benefits now cover 36 months of education time, which equates to approximately four school calendar years. The bill also encourages more students to enter into science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programs, and it restores benefits to students whose schools closed or lost accreditation in the middle of a semester, costing the veteran a semester of eligibility without actually earning any credits.

While the provisions in the bill were far from controversial, the bill got off to a rocky start as VSOs battled over how it would be funded. The original proposal that had widespread support would have mimicked the Montgomery GI Bill, which required active duty service members to pay a nominal amount of their salary into the program to become eligible. Some groups, however, balked at forcing service members to pay for this benefit. The visceral backlash sunk the bill initially. It regained momentum, however, and was ultimately successful using a different funding mechanism which aligns Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH) rates for GI Bill users with current DOD rates for active duty service members. The GI Bill’s current rates were higher than DOD rates, and the reduction in amount will ultimately cover the cost of expanding the GI Bill.

Senate Approves Appeals Modernization Act

On August 2, 2017, the Senate moved appeals modernization one step closer to becoming a reality. H.R. 2288, the “Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act of 2017,” was introduced and overwhelmingly passed in the House earlier this year. The Senate tacked on a few more technical refinements and passed the bill under voice vote just before the August recess. Despite being in recess, the House passed the appeals modernization bill by unanimous consent (meaning there were no objections to the minor technical changes) on August 11, 2017.

Once the bill is enacted into law, the earliest changes are expected to be seen approximately eighteen months after enactment. The massive overhaul of the disability claims and appeals process has long been in the works, but the new law will require extensive efforts to implement and widespread changes to the regulations that govern the process.

PVA Files Lawsuit over Wheelchair Damage Rule

At the end of July, PVA filed suit against the Department of Transportation (DOT) for abruptly rolling back a rule intended to make airline travel safer and easier for passengers with disabilities. The rule, which requires domestic airlines to track and report data on lost and damaged wheelchairs and scooters, was delayed by the Administration without seeking input from people with disabilities. DOT originally published the rule in November 2016, following a five-year rulemaking process that included input from air travelers, consumer and disability advocacy groups, and airlines.

The rule was scheduled for implementation in January 2018. In March 2017, DOT abruptly delayed the rule’s implementation date by one year, until January 2019, without providing the public any notice or opportunity to comment, in violation of the Administrative Procedure Act. DOT claimed the delay was necessary due to implementation “challenges” faced by the airline industry. However, the only evidence of these challenges DOT presented was a single email the agency received from the airline industry.

Since DOT’s decision, PVA has informed Administration officials and members of Congress about how the rule’s delay will hurt people with disabilities and asked that DOT allow these critical protections to move forward. Together with the complaint, PVA filed a motion to reinstate the rule’s original effective date. The case was filed in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia.

Senate Effort to Repeal and Replace Affordable Care Act Fails

In a series of votes over the course of a week in late July, the Senate rejected a variety of proposals intended to repeal all or parts of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and replace the 2010, health care law with dramatically different provisions that would have resulted in increased numbers of uninsured Americans and millions more exposed to insurance discrimination due to pre-existing health conditions and disabilities. Senators were first presented with an amendment to the bill that passed the House of Representatives in May that would have capped and cut Medicaid by over $700 billion, eliminated most home and community based services programs in Medicaid, adjusted downward the ACA’s affordability tax credits and allowed insurers to sell health plans that imposed lifetime caps on benefits and excluded from coverage many services vital to people with disabilities. That bill—the “Better Care Reconciliation Act (BCRA)”—failed on a vote of 43 to 57.

The Senate then considered a motion to repeal the entire ACA with nothing to replace it. The effective date of the repeal would have been delayed for two years under the assumption that Republicans would draft a replacement plan during that period. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated that this proposal would have resulted in 32 million more uninsured over the next decade. That proposal also failed with all Democrats and seven Republicans voting against the measure.

During the course of the week, numerous motions were made to send the bill to the appropriate committees with instructions to conduct hearings on the proposals to amend the ACA, obtain CBO scores and receive input from stakeholders affected by suggested changes to the law. All of these efforts failed along with other motions designed largely for political messaging purposes

In a final effort to pass something that could ostensibly go to conference with the House-passed bill, the Senate GOP leadership put forward what was called “Skinny Repeal and Replace.” This amendment would have eliminated both the individual and employer mandates of the ACA as well as the medical device tax but left the remainder of the ACA intact. Even so, this measure would have destabilized insurance markets, added 16 million Americans to the ranks of the uninsured and still have cut Medicaid by over $200 billion. Moreover, there were serious concerns among Senators on both sides of the aisle that a conference report would be drafted in secret and return with provisions reinstating insurance discrimination, making steep reductions in financial assistance to make insurance affordable and even more damaging cuts to Medicaid. These were the concerns that had compelled the opposition of Senators Collins and Murkowski throughout the debate and which led them to vote “No” on this final package. Their votes, coupled with the 48 Democratic votes against the amendment, set the stage for one of the most dramatic scenes witnessed in the Senate in years.

Earlier in the week, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) returned to the Senate after being diagnosed with an aggressive form of brain cancer to vote in favor of advancing the debate on health care reform. Sen. McCain made a very eloquent statement about the failure of the Senate to pursue bipartisan solutions to health care reform and to follow “regular order” on this very important legislation. Regular order is a Senate term of art which means that the health care bill or bills would have been considered in committee hearings, been open to amendment, received full vetting by the CBO and provided opportunities for those affected by the proposals to testify. In the early morning hours of July 28, the vote on the “skinny repeal” was defeated when Sen. McCain shockingly voted against the measure.

At the beginning of debate, PVA sent a letter to all Senators echoing the concerns expressed by Sen. McCain. Lack of transparency in the development of the Senate bill and the method under which the legislation was put forward meant that many of PVA’s objections to the legislation could not be addressed. As written, the Senate bill would continue to exclude the children of catastrophically disabled veterans covered by CHAMPVA from its provisions ensuring dependent insurance coverage up to age 26. Unanswered questions remained regarding the availability of affordability tax credits for veterans who are not enrolled in the VA health care system if the Senate bill had become law. Perhaps most significantly, little attention was paid to the impact of Medicaid cuts to over 2 million veterans that rely on that program and what that might mean for increased demand on the VA health care system. The VA Secretary himself had expressed concern about potential new demand on the VA health care system if these veterans lose Medicaid coverage but without hearings on the bill there was no chance to examine this issue.

There is increasing bipartisan consensus that something must be done to help those in the small employer and individual insurance markets who face increasing premiums, excessive deductibles and loss of health plan choices. Perhaps most urgent is an impending need to fund the ACA’s cost sharing subsidies for lower income health plan customers. Insurers will soon be making decisions for 2018, about their participation in the health insurance exchanges based on these subsidies.

Senators Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Patty Murray (D-WA), the chairman and ranking member of the Health, Education and Labor Committee, plan to hold hearings in September to explore options for shoring up the financing of health insurance exchanges and other fixes to the ACA that have bipartisan support. Meanwhile, in the House, a Problem Solvers Caucus that is almost evenly comprised of Republicans and Democrats has begun putting together proposals that would increase the number of workers from 50 to 500 for companies subject to the ACA employer mandate and create a federal stability fund to help states reduce premiums and other costs for those with expensive medical needs.

It remains to be seen how far these discussions will progress after the August recess in light of other demands on Congressional time, such as completion of the budget and the need to increase the debt limit. PVA will nonetheless be encouraging Congress to pursue a more open and bipartisan approach to health system reforms that respond to the needs of all Americans, including veterans and people with disabilities.

 

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.

September’s Washington Update

September 16, 2016                                                        Volume 22, No. 9

***PRIORITY***

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

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

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

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

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

House and Senate VA Committees Review Commission on Care Report

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

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

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

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

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

House Passes Important Legislation

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

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

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

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

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

Work Continues on ACCESS Committee

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

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

PVA Supports Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces Regulation

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

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

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

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

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

 

August Washington Update

 

August 19, 2016                                                               Volume 22, No. 8

***PRIORITY***

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

Presidential Campaigns Wrap-up Nominating Conventions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PVA Conducts Survey to Support Access Committee Work

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

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

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

Review of AirAccess30.org Website

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

Election Assistance Commission Focused on Security for Elections

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

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

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

July Washington Update

 

July 19, 2016                                                                    Volume 22, No. 7

***PRIORITY***

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

Commission on Care Releases Report

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

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

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

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

PVA Testifies at House VA Committee Legislative Hearing

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

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

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

Senate VA Committee Conducts Legislative Hearing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Government Relations Hosts Hill Briefing on ACAA

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

Advocacy Staff Attends ADA Symposium

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

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

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

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

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

FAA Extension Includes Disability-Related Provisions

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

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

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

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

House Judiciary Committee Approves ADA Notification Bill

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

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

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

Royal Caribbean Guest Advisory Board on Disabilities Meets

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

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

 

 

June’s Washington Update

June 14, 2016                                                                   Volume 22, No. 6

***PRIORITY***

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

Senate VA Committee Conducts Legislative Hearing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PVA Participates in Veterans Jobs Caucus Briefing

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

House May Punt on Passage of FAA Reauthorization Bil

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

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

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

Airline Consumer Protection Bill Includes Disability Provisions

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

Access Committee Begins Negotiations

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

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

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

PVA Defends Fair Housing Rule

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

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