July’s Washington Update

July 18, 2017 Volume 23, No. 7

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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 Committee on Aging Considers Military Caregivers

On June 14, 2017, Senator Elizabeth Dole testified before the Senate Special Committee on Aging regarding the needs of military caregivers. Joining the Senator’s remarks with his own testimony was Hidden Heroes ambassador and actor, Ryan Phillipe. A second panel included veterans, their caregivers, and researchers from the RAND Corporation who shared the findings of a report commissioned by the Elizabeth Dole Foundation outlining the critical needs of caregivers.

There are currently 5.5 million veteran and military caregivers. Many post-9/11 service connected veterans have found support through the VA Comprehensive Family Caregiver Program. However, the majority of veterans with service-connected disabilities are remain ineligible. Senator Dole extolled the moral urgency of correcting this inequality. And while most members of the committee ardently agreed to expansion in principle, the cost of the effort remains a concern not yet alleviated.

Additionally, Senator Dole illustrated the toll of the duties of caregiving on those providing it. The wellbeing of the caregiver is directly linked to the wellbeing of the veteran. As a caregiver’s health declines or is interrupted so too does the quality of assistance. Other deleterious factors in providing care are the loss or insecurity of income. Caregivers often decrease the hours they can work or quit their jobs altogether to care for a veteran. Caregivers, similar to their veterans, often experience devastating isolation in their roles that can take them out of their communities and social interactions necessary to maintaining emotional wellbeing.

The Elizabeth Dole Foundation works to raise awareness of the role of caregivers in our society. Last September, the Foundation launched Hidden Heroes to push forward solutions to the daily challenges caregivers face. PVA has developed a relationship with the Foundation to advance legislation that will expand eligibility for the Comprehensive Family Caregiver Program permanently.

PVA Testifies Before Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity

On June 29, 2017, Gabe Stultz, Legislative Counsel for PVA, testified before the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity. The Subcommittee considered a number of bills, including efforts to better track bonuses and the reasons behind transfers of VA employees. PVA testified specifically on a draft proposal that would restructure the way home adaptations are delivered as part of the Independent Living Services in the Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment (VR&E) program. For anyone qualifying for home adaptations under the VR&E program, the draft bill would have the VA’s Specially Adapted Housing (SAH) office carry out the actual delivery of services.

Because the Loan Guaranty office currently administers both the SAH and SHA grants, the effect would be to consolidate all administrative authorities for home modifications under one office within VA. The HISA grant would remain separate and continue to be administered by the Prosthetics and Sensory Aids department within the Veterans Health Administration (VHA). PVA called for oversight to ensure that as VA consolidates the administrative functions that it does not suddenly increase the workload in the SAH program without a corresponding increase in staff.

PVA Participates in Public Hearing on Implementation of the Veterans Mobility Safety Act

In December 2016, Congress enacted the “Veterans Mobility Safety Act,” a bill that requires VA to ensure that vehicle adaptations are carried out by qualified individuals. While VA has standards for the specific equipment being installed on vehicles, it never had any standards for who was installing that equipment. Simply put, the safety of the equipment itself is irrelevant if the person installing it is incompetent.

The law called for VA to develop a policy related to safety certification for installers. VA began the process by soliciting comments from stakeholders in writing back in February of this year. On June 13, 2017, VA continued this process by hosting an in-person hearing where stakeholders could voice their opinions. Fred Downs, Prosthetics Consultant for PVA, provided an oral statement on our organization’s behalf. The following is an excerpt from the oral statement and highlights our main position on the matter:

When PVA first involved itself in the passage of the Veterans Mobility Safety Act, our biggest concern was ensuring that as safety standards for installing automotive adaptive equipment were implemented, the end user would not be negatively impacted. The risks as we saw them were that, either by design or by poor implementation of this law, veterans might begin to lose access to vendors who have long provided disabled veterans with safe products.

VA is charged with developing safety standards, but these standards were not intended to govern the entire industry. They are only supposed to serve as a benchmark by which others are judged. VA’s standards should only be directly employed when a provider fails to present certification from the product manufacturer or a trade association that incorporates adherence to stringent safety standards as part of its membership.

This law should not be viewed as an opportunity for VA to expand regulations on the industry. The goal is to identify providers who are offering substandard installations and unwilling to adhere to basic industry safety standards. When those providers are identified, they should face a choice: become certified under VA’s standards or stop doing business with VA.”

We remain concerned that VA has not developed a sound policy yet to ensure proper implementation of these requirements. We will continue to work with VA staff to ensure that this necessary change is not haphazardly carried out.

House and Senate FAA Reauthorization Bills Include Provisions to Improve Air Travel for Passengers with Disabilities

PVA’s efforts to improve air travel for passengers with disabilities have led to the inclusion of disability-related provisions in the House and Senate versions of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Reauthorization bills currently pending on Capitol Hill. Many of these provisions are similar to those found in the S. 1318, the “Air Carrier Access Amendments Act,” that is strongly supported by PVA.

The “21st Century Aviation Innovation, Reform, and Reauthorization Act” (H.R. 2997), the House’s version of the FAA Reauthorization, includes four disability-related provisions as passed by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee on June 27. Sections 541, 542, and 543 would establish a select subcommittee on passengers with disabilities to advise the Secretary of Transportation, require a study concerning airport accessibility and air carrier training policies, and mandate research into the feasibility of allowing passengers with disabilities to fly from their wheelchairs. An amendment added during the committee’s markup would also require the Department of Transportation (DOT) to move forward in promulgating rules on service animals, lavatories on single-aisle aircraft, and in-flight entertainment.

As passed out of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee on June 29, S. 1405, the “FAA Reauthorization Act of 2017,” would require a study concerning airport accessibility, a determination on the feasibility of using in cabin wheelchair restraint systems, and the creation of an advisory committee on the air travel needs of passengers with disabilities to advise the Secretary of Transportation on implementation of the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA). The Senate FAA Reauthorization also includes a requirement for airlines to provide wheelchair and scooter information to DOT beginning January 1, 2018. This requirement was delayed by the Department earlier this year. Other provisions added during the committee’s markup include an airline passengers with disabilities bill of rights, increased civil penalties for harm to assistive devices or passengers with disabilities due to ACAA violations, and a requirement for hands on training for those who provide that type of assistance to passengers with disabilities.

Both the House and Senate versions of the FAA Reauthorization are currently pending floor action. Each includes provisions unrelated to the disability sections that may make it difficult for either bill to pass. The current FAA authorization expires at the end of September. Congress must take action to either extend the current authorization or pass a reauthorization before that time.

In the meantime, PVA will continue to seek additional co-sponsors for S. 1318, and support for further amendments to the FAA Reauthorization bills to foster additional improvements in air travel for passengers with disabilities.

Senate Health Care Reform Bill Introduced

On June 22, 2017, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell released the Better Care Reconciliation Act (BCRA), the Senate’s version of a bill to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Developed largely in secret by a few allies of the Majority Leader, the bill was intended for a quick vote under simple majority rules prior to the July 4th Congressional recess. However, strong bipartisan opposition to the measure, including among moderate and conservative Republicans, arose and forced Leader McConnell to postpone the vote. A revised version of the bill was unveiled on July 13. The majority leader has been working to corral the necessary 50 votes (Vice President Pence would be the tie breaker) to proceed under reconciliation rules. Among the provisions of the bill in its latest form are:

Cuts to Medicaid – In addition to phasing out the ACA’s Medicaid expansion, which has covered roughly 340,000 veterans nationwide, according to FamiliesUSA, the Senate bill would, according to the Congressional Budget Office, reduce spending in the basic Medicaid program by 35 percent by 2036. Under the limits on Medicaid funding contained in the bill, states would likely be forced to severely restrict the populations covered and services provided by the program. This could put at risk approximately 1.75 million veterans currently covered by traditional Medicaid.

  • Pre-existing condition exclusions – The BCRA permits states to waive portions of the ACA’s essential health benefit (EHBs) requirements. The ACA requires that certain benefits be included in any insurance plan offered on the individual and small group market. These EHBs include outpatient services, emergency room care, hospitalization, maternity care, mental health and substance abuse services, prescription drugs, rehabilitative and habilitative services, lab tests, preventative care, and pediatric care. With a state waiver, insurers would be able to deny numerous services that people with disabilities, and others with pre-existing conditions rely upon. It would also mean that individuals living in one state may be able to access the services they need, while those in another state may not. People with pre-existing conditions could technically still be able to purchase insurance, just not the insurance that includes the services they need at a cost they can afford.

 

  • Lifetime and annual limits on benefits – The ACA limits the amount that insurers can charge annually to individuals and families for out-of-pocket payments. The Senate proposal would make it easier for states to apply to the federal government to waive these limits. Similarly, while there is language in the bill that continues the prohibition on lifetime coverage caps, these only apply to limits on essential health benefits. If a state changes or eliminates the essential benefit options, lifetime coverage caps could effectively be reinstated. This would have a disproportionate impact on individuals with disabilities who depend on many services now required to be offered under the EHB rules.
  • Creation of high risk pools – A state stability fund is proposed to help states bring down premiums and start programs that lower costs for insurers and consumers. The bill includes more than $180 billion for this fund. Prior to the ACA, 35 states had created high-risk pools to offer coverage to state residents with pre-existing conditions that made them uninsurable. Features adopted by the states to limit enrollment, and thus costs, included premiums set well above the standard non-group market rates, 6 to 12 month exclusion periods for pre-existing conditions, lifetime and annual dollar limits on coverage and deductibles between $1000 and $5000.

 

  • Other provisions – The revised bill retains several of the taxes included in the ACA such as the 3.8 percent investment income tax on people making over $200,000 a year, a tax on incomes of health insurance executives and the Medicare health insurance tax that was created to extend the life of the Hospital Insurance trust fund. The newest version of the BCRA includes $45 billion in funding to address the opioid crisis. Another new provision in the bill would allow funds in Health Savings Accounts to go toward insurance costs.
  • Cruz amendment – An amendment is expected to be offered by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) allowing health plans with slimmer benefits packages to be sold on and off the health market exchanges under the assumption that this would make these insurance plans cheaper. However, insurers would also be required to sell at least one ACA-compliant plan. Critics of this amendment fear that segmenting the market in this fashion would drive younger, healthier people to the minimalist plans, leaving older, sicker constituents with the more expansive health plans. This would likely cause premiums for the more robust insurance plans to increase significantly. To protect insurers who attract a disproportionate share of “high risk” individuals, the bill will include a $70 billion fund to offset costs for these companies.

Since the 115th Congress began debating health care reform, PVA has expressed its strong desire that these deliberations be done in a bipartisan fashion under regular order with stakeholders given an opportunity to consider and weigh in on various policy options. By using reconciliation, which requires only a 50 vote margin to win passage, to advance the Senate’s legislation, several issues of particular concern to PVA will go unaddressed. For example, the children of catastrophically disabled veterans covered by CHAMPVA will continue to be excluded from current policies that provide for dependent insurance coverage up to age 26. There have been some questions whether the tax credits meant to make health insurance affordable would be available to veterans who are eligible but not enrolled in the VA health care system. PVA has been informed that reconciliation procedures preclude the opportunity to clarify this issue.

The new version of the BCRA retains almost $800 billion in Medicaid cuts over ten years. Between traditional Medicaid, the Medicaid expansion as well as the ACA premium tax credits, there has been a 40 percent decrease in uninsured non-elderly veterans between 2013 and 2015.1 Most of these veterans are older than 45, the age group most adversely affected by the Senate bill’s provisions allowing older individuals to be charged up to five times the standard premium amount.

Some of these veterans may be able to enroll in the VA health care system under current rules but others, because of policies that bar enrollment to certain veterans above modest income thresholds, will be denied access to the VA. Congress could act to open up the VA health care system to all veterans but it is unclear whether the VA has the budgetary and system capacities able to handle even half of the veterans now covered under Medicaid.

As of the deadline for the Update, the BCRA was tabled as several Republican senators have come out in opposition to the bill, including Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS), and Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT). Sen. McConnell has indicated that he may bring a simple ACA repeal bill to the floor for consideration given the failing support for the BCRA. PVA staff will continue to monitor this effort and reach out to chapters as this debate continues.

Social Security Trustees Issue Annual Report on System’s Status

On July 13, 2017, the Social Security Trustees released their annual report on the current and projected financial status of the Social Security trust funds. The 2017 Trustees Report highlights that the Social Security system continues to operate well for the American people. The Social Security system’s financial outlook remains stable, and can continue to pay all scheduled old age, survivors, and disability benefits until 2034. With modest increases in revenue, Social Security will be able to pay full benefits throughout the century and beyond. The 2017 Trustees Report finds that Social Security is fully solvent until 2034, but faces a moderate long-term shortfall.

In 2016, Social Security took in roughly $35 billion more in total income, including interest, than it paid out. Its reserves were $2.85 trillion at the end of 2016. If Congress does not act before 2034, the reserves would be drawn down, and revenue coming into the Trust Funds would cover about 77 percent of scheduled benefits. The Trustees Report also projects that Social Security’s Disability Insurance (SSDI) trust fund by itself can pay all scheduled benefits until 2028—5 years longer than projected in the 2016 Trustees Report. If Congress takes no action before 2028, the Trustees project that thereafter the SSDI trust fund will be able to pay about 93 percent of scheduled benefits.

Royal Caribbean Disability Advisory Board Meets

In June, Susan Prokop, PVA Senior Associate Advocacy Director, attended the meeting of the Royal Caribbean (RCCL) Disability Advisory Board to receive updates on the company’s efforts to make its cruises accessible and to promote itself as an inclusive employer to people with disabilities. PVA was appointed as a member of the Advisory Board in 2016.

Members of the advisory board heard presentations on Royal Caribbean’s efforts to track special needs requests and training modules developed for customer contact center staff to assist guests with disabilities. The cruise line has also recently established an employee resource group (ERG) for staff with disabilities in three of its call center sites in South Florida, Wichita, Kansas and Springfield, OR. RCCL hopes to use this ERG to engage with local chapters of its three disability advisory boards.

1 Urban Institute, April 2017, “Veterans Saw Broad Coverage Gains Between 2013 and 2015”

June’s Washington Update

June 19 2017                                                                    Volume 23, No. 6

***PRIORITY***

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

Administration Finally Releases its FY 2018 Budget Request

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bi-Partisan Accountability Bill Passed by Congress

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

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

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

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

Air Carrier Access Amendments Act Introduced in the Senate

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

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

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

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

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

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

President’s Budget Proposes Cuts to Important Disability Programs

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

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

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

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

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

Update on the ADA Education and Reform Act of 2017

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

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

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

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

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

ADA Symposium

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

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

PVA Participates in Afghan Disability Rights Conference

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

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

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

 

 

 

May Washington Update

May 16, 2017 Volume 23, No. 5

***PRIORITY***

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

Bi-Partisan Accountability Bill Introduced

On May 11, 2017, Senate VA Committee Chairman Johnny Isakson (R-GA) and Ranking Member Jon Tester (D-MT) introduced the “VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act.” The legislation was also co-sponsored by Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL). PVA offered our strong support for this critical piece of legislation. The principle goal of the legislation is to allow the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to terminate bad employees faster while also strengthening protections for whistleblowers. The bill streamlines the VA’s process for reviewing and firing employees who engage in misconduct or perform poorly without sacrificing their due process rights.

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

1. Increase accountability within the VA by:

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

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

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

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

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

2. Protect whistleblowers by:

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

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

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

3. Strengthen VA leadership by:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

House Subcommittee Holds Roundtable on Caregiver Support Programs

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

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

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

HVAC Pushes Forward with Appeals Modernization in the 115th Congress

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

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

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

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

VA Adopts New Standards for Medical Diagnostic Equipment

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

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

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

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

House Passes American Health Care Act

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March Washington Update

March 17, 2017                                                                Volume 23, No. 3

***PRIORITY***

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

PVA Annual Advocacy and Legislation Seminar

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

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

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

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

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

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

House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Holds Hearing on

Community Care

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Caregiver Expansion Bill Introduced

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

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

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

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

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

PVA Prosthetics Consultant Participates in Brain Awareness

Week Program

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

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

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

DOT Delays Implementation of Final Rule Requiring US Airlines

to Report Wheelchair Data

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

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

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

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

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

PVA Trains Wheelchair Attendants for Virgin America Airlines

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

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

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

October Washington Update

October 18, 2016 Volume 22, No. 10

***PRIORITY***

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

Congress Approves CR, Includes PVA Priorities

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

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

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

Legislation Stalled in the Senate

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

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

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

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

DOT ACCESS Committee Completes Work

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

Lavatories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Service Animals

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

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

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

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

Inflight Entertainment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On February 8, 2016, the Department of Justice announced a consent decree resolving a complaint against Greyhound for alleged violations under the Americans with Disabilities (ADA). Allegations against Greyhound included failing to maintain accessibility features on buses, failing to provide assistance to passengers with disabilities, and failing to allow passengers using wheelchairs to complete reservations online. As a result of the consent decree, Greyhound will be required to compensate travelers with disabilities who experienced disability discrimination while traveling or attempting to travel on Greyhound.

The deadline for passengers with disabilities who encountered disability-related discrimination on Greyhound to submit a claim for compensation is November 10, 2016.
To be eligible for compensation, an individual must have a disability; have traveled or attempted to travel on Greyhound between February 8, 2013, and February 8, 2016; and have experienced a disability-related incident during travel or while attempting to travel. Examples of incidents include lack of accessible transportation and failure to make disability-related accommodations.

Individuals who believe they meet these requirements must submit a claim online, by email, or mail to Greyhound’s appointed claims administrator by November 10, 2016. Instructions regarding the claims process are available at: http://www.dojvgreyhoundsettlement.com. To contact the Claims Administrator, please call 1-844-502-5953 or by email at GRYsettlement@classactionadmin.com.

ADA Notification Act Legislation Introduced in the Senate

On September 28, 2016, Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) introduced S. 3446, the “ADA Education and Reform Act of 2016.” This legislation would require a person with a disability to give notice to a public accommodation of an architectural barrier under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prior to filing a lawsuit. Sen. Flake’s legislation is a companion bill to H.R. 3765, which was introduced by Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX) and passed by the House Judiciary Committee in July. Despite concerns that H.R. 3765 might be brought to the House floor for a vote in September, no further action on this legislation has occurred.
PVA strongly opposes proposed ADA notification requirements. Notification laws put the onus on the person with a disability to find ADA violations and notify a public accommodation of those violations. No other civil rights group is forced to shoulder the burden of triggering compliance with the law and, once they have done so, to wait to enforce their civil rights. Accessibility standards, such as those the ADA includes, are extremely important. Covered entities should continuously evaluate their businesses for appropriate access under the ADA and not wait to receive a notification before acting to make them fully accessible.

OFCCP Hosts Business Roundtable for National Disability Employment Awareness Month

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

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

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

September’s Washington Update

September 16, 2016                                                        Volume 22, No. 9

***PRIORITY***

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

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

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

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

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

House and Senate VA Committees Review Commission on Care Report

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

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

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

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

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

House Passes Important Legislation

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

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

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

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

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

Work Continues on ACCESS Committee

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

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

PVA Supports Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces Regulation

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

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

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

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

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

 

August Washington Update

 

August 19, 2016                                                               Volume 22, No. 8

***PRIORITY***

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

Presidential Campaigns Wrap-up Nominating Conventions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PVA Conducts Survey to Support Access Committee Work

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

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

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

Review of AirAccess30.org Website

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

Election Assistance Commission Focused on Security for Elections

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

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

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