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.

 

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March Washington Update

March 17, 2017                                                                Volume 23, No. 3

***PRIORITY***

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

PVA Annual Advocacy and Legislation Seminar

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

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

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

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

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

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

House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Holds Hearing on

Community Care

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Caregiver Expansion Bill Introduced

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

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

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

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

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

PVA Prosthetics Consultant Participates in Brain Awareness

Week Program

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

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

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

DOT Delays Implementation of Final Rule Requiring US Airlines

to Report Wheelchair Data

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

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

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

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

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

PVA Trains Wheelchair Attendants for Virgin America Airlines

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

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

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

December Washington Update

December 15, 2016                                                         Volume 22, No. 12

***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.

Key Leaders Chosen for House and Senate Committees

During the lame duck session following the November election, the Republican and Democratic caucuses in the House or Representatives and Senate chose the members who will serve as the Chairmen and Ranking Members of Committees during the 115th Congress beginning in January 2017. In the House, Rep. Phil Roe (R-TN) was chosen as the next Chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. Rep. Roe is replacing Rep. Jeff Miller (R-FL) who is retiring at the end of this year. Rep. Roe is a doctor who has used his experience to inform his views on the reform of veterans’ health care delivery. He has supported greater choice for care in the community for veterans, but he has generally opposed outright privatization of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) health care system. The House VA Committee Ranking Minority Member position has not been decided yet; however, it is expected to be either Rep. Mark Takano (D-CA) or Rep. Tim Walz (D-MN). Leadership for the four Subcommittees is expected to be chosen in January.

In the Senate, Senator Johnny Isakson (R-GA) will continue as the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. Senator Isakson has previously expressed support for expansion of the Comprehensive Family Caregiver Program—a high priority for PVA—to veterans of all eras. He has also lead efforts to improve accountability without undermining employees’ rights. Importantly, he also supports greater choice for veterans seeking health care. Senator Jon Tester (D-MT) will be the new Ranking Minority Member of the Senate VA Committee.

The National Advocacy Program staff will continue to work with a number of key committees through our work on the Air Carrier Access Act, entitlement reform, and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The expected chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee is Senator John Thune (R-SD), who is the current chairman of the committee. Also returning will be Ranking Member Bill Nelson (D-FL). The returning chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee is Rep. Bill Shuster (R-PA), while Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR) is expected to remain the ranking member of the committee.

PVA’s efforts to strengthen the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) must go through these committees. PVA worked with these committees in 2016 when we were successful in having PVA-drafted language included in the 2016 FAA Extension. This language required GAO to conduct a review of disability-related training for airline staff and their contractors. In 2017, we will be working to ensure that legislation to reauthorize the FAA, which must be completed by September, includes additional PVA-supported language that will increase enforcement of the ACAA and improve the travel experience for passengers with disabilities.

A number of committees will address potential entitlement reform, specifically the Social Security and Medicare programs. Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) is expected to remain the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. Also returning will be ranking member Ron Wyden (D-OR). The new chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee is Rep. Greg Walden (R-OR), while the Ranking Member is expected to be Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ).

The returning chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee is Congressman Kevin Brady (R-TX), while Rep. Richard Neal (D-MA) is expected to become the ranking member. The outgoing chairman of the Social Security Subcommittee, Rep. Sam Johnson (R-TX), recently dropped a placeholder Social Security reform bill that focuses on benefit cuts. This legislation is expected to be the basis for reform during the 115th Congress beginning in January 2017. The expected new ranking member on the Social Security Subcommittee is Rep. John Larson (D-CT) who is the main sponsor of a bill to expand Social Security.

We also anticipate work that will have an impact on ongoing implementation of the ADA. With this in mind, the expected chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee is current Chairman Charles Grassley (R-IA). Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) will be the new ranking member of the Senate committee. The chairman of the House Judiciary Committee is current Chairman Robert Goodlatte (R-VA). Rep. John Conyers (D-MI), current ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, is expected to retain his position.

PVA’s efforts to protect the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) are under the purview of the Senate and House Judiciary Committees. PVA is concerned about efforts to require people with disabilities to notify businesses of architectural barriers prior to filing a lawsuit under the ADA. Legislation that would have required notification was introduced in the House and Senate in the 114th Congress and passed the House committee. We anticipate this issue to return in 2017.

There are also additional committees that the Government Relations Department will engage with during the 115th Congress. The expected chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee is Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN), who is the current chairman of the committee. Also returning will be Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-WA). The new chairwoman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee is Rep. Virginia Fox (R-NC), while Rep. Robert Scott (D-VA) is expected tp be the ranking of that committee once again. The expected new chairman of the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee is Senator Michael Crapo (R-ID), and the returning ranking member is Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH). The returning chairman of the House Financial Services Committee is Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-TX), and Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) is expected to remain the ranking member of the committee.

We will update PVA members as additional key leadership positions in the House and Senate are determined early in January.

“Veterans Mobility Safety Act” Approved by Congress”

On November 29, 2017, the House gave final approval to H.R. 3471, the “Veterans Mobility Safety Act.” The revised bill includes significant language changes to address concerns brought by outside equipment dealers to PVA leadership earlier this year. Gabe Stultz, Associate Legislative Director, deserves a great deal of credit for his relentless advocacy work on this issue. This bill was championed by Rep. Jackie Walorski (R-IN), who is a member of the House VA Committee, and it was pushed in the Senate by Senator Jerry Moran (R-KS).

PVA has spent the last year working to get this important piece of legislation enacted. Support for this legislation was compromised at various points by competing business interests that appeared to be more interested in getting an advantage over their competition, rather than focusing on the most important priority of the legislation—veterans being served. Fortunately, Congress managed to overcome a great deal of misinformation, and in some cases blatant falsehoods, to take this positive step.

Moving forward, PVA will work with the VA to ensure that we have a prominent role in the implementation of this requirement.

Large Veterans Omnibus Bill Approved by Congress

Prior to adjourning the 114th Congress, the House and Senate passed a large veterans omnibus bill that contained a wide array of provisions that had previously been considered throughout the course of the last two years, but not finally approved. On December 6, 2016, the House approved H.R. 6416, the “Jeff Miller and Richard Blumenthal Veterans Health Care and Benefits Improvement Act.” The Senate approved the bill by voice vote prior to adjourning for the year.

While the bill is a tapered version of the “Veterans First Act,” which passed the Senate unanimously in May, it does contain 76 provisions pertaining to veterans’ health care, disability benefits, and homelessness assistance. However the bill excludes two important concepts that were high priority issues with bipartisan support—expansion of the VA’s Comprehensive Family Caregiver Program to veterans of all eras and Appeals Reform.

The measure is named after Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), former Ranking Member of the Senate VA Committee, and retiring Chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, Rep. Jeff Miller (R-FL). It temporarily increases the number of judges for the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims from seven to nine to help address the large backlog of veterans’ appeals that may soon arrive at the court.

The act will allow for the hiring of more mental health providers and emergency room doctors and extends education benefits to surviving family members. It also begins the research needed to help descendants of veterans exposed to toxic substances.

PVA is ultimately disappointed that the House and Senate sacrificed some extremely important programs and legislative priorities in the interest of passing “some” legislation to improve benefits and services for veterans.

U.S. Access Board Updates ADA Guidelines for Buses and Vans

The U.S. Access Board has issued a final rule updating sections of its accessibility guidelines for transportation vehicles covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The rule revises provisions in the guidelines that apply to buses and vans to enhance accessibility and to address industry trends and improvements in design and technology. The guidelines, which the Board originally published in 1991, apply to new or remanufactured vehicles.

The guidelines for buses and vans address boarding access, fare devices, interior circulation, seating and securement, signs, lighting, and announcement systems. The rule reduces the maximum slope for vehicle ramps because low floor buses are now ubiquitous in fixed route systems. New provisions also address level boarding systems and incorporate updated standards for wheelchair securement systems. The rule improves communication access by requiring that buses in fixed route systems with at least 100 buses have automated stop and route announcements that are visual as well as audible. Further, access to over-the-road buses, which are typically used in commuter and long-distance bus lines and charter services, is more comprehensively addressed. In addition to these substantive changes, the rule features a new format and numbering system. An assessment of the costs and benefits is included with the rule.

The Board previously issued versions of the rule in draft and proposed forms for public comment and has finalized the rule based on the feedback received. At a later date, the Board will propose updates to sections of the guidelines covering vehicles in fixed guideway systems, including rapid, light, commuter, and intercity rail, according to recommendations from an advisory committee it chartered, the Rail Vehicles Access Advisory Committee, which submitted its report to the Board last year.

The Board’s vehicle guidelines serve as the basis for mandatory standards issued by the Department of Transportation (DOT) under the ADA. Compliance with the updated requirements for buses and vans will become mandatory once specified by DOT in a future update of its ADA standards.

PVA Trains Wheelchair Attendants for Virgin America Airlines

In early December, Senior Associate Advocacy Director Lee Page and Heather Ansley, Associate General Counsel for Corporate and Government Relations, met with representatives from Virgin America Airlines at Dulles International Airport (DIA) in northern Virginia. The meeting was at Virgin’s request to facilitate a discussion around the boarding process and demonstrate proper technics for transfers in and out of an aisle chair. Virgin America contracts with Huntleigh USA Corp. at Dulles for wheelchair assistance to assist passengers with disabilities in boarding and deplaning as part of their responsibility under the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA).

After introductions, Mr. Page and Ms. Ansley thoroughly explained the Air Carrier Access Act and the legal responsibilities of the airline–Virgin America—and its contractor—Huntleigh—in what services are required to be provided to qualified passengers with disabilities. Mr. Page with the assistance of Huntleigh personnel demonstrated proper transfer technics on and off two different aisle chairs that were provided. Whereas Huntleigh personnel knew what to do in the transfers, Mr. Page emphasized that they need to take direction from the passenger with the disability.

The discussion lasted about two hours and included approximately 25 participants from Virgin America, Huntleigh USA, and a few representatives from Alaska Airlines. PVA agreed to work with Virgin America and Alaska Airlines to develop future opportunities to educate personnel on the specific needs of passengers with disabilities.

PVA Attends Universal Access in Airports Conference

From November 14 – 16, 2016, Senior Associate Advocacy Director, Lee Page and Heather Ansley, Associate General Counsel for Corporate and Government Relations attended the sixth Universal Access in Airports (UAIA) conference in San Francisco. The conference was hosted by the Open Doors Organization (ODO) of Chicago.

ODO is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization based in Chicago, Illinois, was founded in 2000 for the purpose of creating a society in which all persons with disabilities have the same consumer opportunities as everyone else. They aspire to teach businesses how to succeed in the disability market, while simultaneously empowering the disability community.

The UAIA Conference focuses on what’s new in aviation, to include regulations, technology, and innovative best practices. The conference also addresses service gaps and barriers that still prevent air travel from being fully accessible to older adults and people with disabilities. Attendees to the conference included representatives of airlines, DOT and FAA regulators, Architects and ADA coordinators for airports, TSA, customer service senior management, product manufactures, contracted service management and persons with disability.

The two days of information sharing included a briefing from the Department of Transportation on the recently concluded ACCESS Committee that had consensus agreement for rulemaking around Lavatories on single aisle aircraft of a certain size, and inflight entertainment and communication for the deaf and hard of hearing and those who are blind or limited vision. Other panels focused on products of accessibility that could increase access at airports in the realm of seating design and website accessibility. A consumer panel focused on the experience of navigating through the airport and the problems of going through TSA security checks and the utilization of contract service employees who assist passengers with disabilities.

Overall, this conference is heavily attended by the airline industry and provides a good opportunity to network. The next conference will be in Minneapolis, MN in 2018.

ADA Transportation Survey

The ADA Participation Action Research Consortium (ADA_PARC), a collaborative research project of the ADA Regional Centers, is conducting a study on the accessibility of public transportation for people with disabilities. The purpose of the study is to increase the knowledge base about transportation access for people with disabilities with the hope of improving access to transportation at the regional and national levels

The survey is available at: https://unco.co1.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_00wcGeTOzGL2lQ9. It will be open until mid-January 2017.

 

We encourage our members to participate in this important study.

A Family of Veteran Volunteers

It amazes me when someone thanks me for my service to our country.  I volunteered for the military because I wanted to serve and enlist, like most other veterans.  Yes, some of us caught some bad breaks that put us in our chairs, but I believe that few would change our choices.  We wanted to do it.  Volunteering is doing something and expecting nothing in return, I always feel good about it when I help someone or donate for a good cause. 

ImageThis past weekend I met a family of super volunteers paying it forward.  The Heard family gave all of their time at the Gulf Coast Paralyzed Veterans of America Bass Tournament and helped make it unforgettable for our Veterans.  The family led by the patriarch Kevin Heard, the Mom Lisa, and the Wounded Warrior son Ryan volunteered and paid it forward in a big way.  Ryan is an Army Veteran PURPLE HEART recipient himself and he did about every task at the event from loading us in boats, to parking trucks and netting fish.  Thank you for your service to our country Ryan! 

Lisa is a Law Enforcement Officer of 30 years and this lady loves to fish.  She helped by backing boats in at launch, driving trucks, and also the bank division fishermen benefited from her skills.  She also donated rods and reels and helped Kenny Burke with his big Bass. Thank you for your service Lisa! 

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Kevin is a 22 year Army Veteran and flight engineer in Army Aviation.  Kevin donated his boat and fishing expertise as a boat Captain and took a PVA Member fishing.  That lucky member was me.  This was two of the best days ever on the water for me.  I enjoyed his Toho Marine Phoenix Bass Boat as it was perfect to fish in.  Kevin’s attitude and our conversations made him a lifelong friend now I hope.  We also won the Team Division on Sunday with 5 bass weighing 22 lbs.   In one unforgettable moment I had cast my fluke to this mat of lily pads and reeled it in, a good 25 yards.  Just as it got back to within 3 yards of me a huge bass erupted  but she missed my bait.  Kevin was ready to cast at that moment and flicked his fluke into the swirling mass,  immediately she ate it!  8.04lbs!   The whole place we fished that day and the pattern was Kevin’s idea as it was thick enough to hunt rabbits in and our baits were seldom touching the water.  Thank you for your Service Kevin!  I truly enjoyed your company and the fishing!