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Change = Growth

Reprinted from PN June 2011

An annual seminar in the nation's capital traditionally has raised awareness of issues and educated attendees about the challenges facing veterans and people with disabilities.

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Once again chapter representatives of Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA) arrived in Washington, D.C., for the Advocacy and Legislation Training Seminar. On March 20–22, more than 75 PVA members and chapter representatives participated in the annual seminar. But this year was a little different. 

The term “change” is all the rage in Washington—but change is not always good. In previous years, the seminar took place in conjunction with PVA’s annual testimony before Congress. While this was the original plan, and everything was put in place months earlier, Washington had another change in mind. This occurred in November 2010 with the election that brought a change to the majority in the House of Representatives. With the change to Republican leadership came a change in schedules, and the scheduled testimony was postponed due to a district work period when members of Congress could return to their home districts to meet with constituents. PVA’s leadership decided to press on with the seminar to take advantage of the hotel contract already in place and also have the opportunity to spend more quality time meeting with staff from congressional offices that would not be as busy as they would if Congress were in session.

As in previous years, members of PVA’s National Office staff and people from government agencies, congressional offices, and other nonprofit organizations provided information to raise awareness of issues and educate attendees on the challenges facing veterans and people with disabilities.

The first day of the seminar began with an overview of the new 112th Congress, presented by Doug Vollmer, PVA associate executive director for Government Relations. He highlighted many of the changes that will face advocates for veterans with the new Congress and the challenges of future tight federal budgets. This included the unique issues faced with a divided government, something not seen since 2006.

Social Security Issues, Access to Congressional Information

The first formal presentation concerned proposals to change Social Security in order to assure the program’s solvency over a 75-year period.  Although actions are needed to address a shortfall in the Social Security trust fund that will arise in 2037, measures offered up in recent months to change the benefit structure or raise the retirement age could have a significant adverse impact on current and future beneficiaries. Many PVA members rely on Social Security as well as VA benefits, and PVA is urging Congress to address any Social Security issues outside the debate on deficit reduction.

The morning concluded with a presentation on the use of www.thomas.gov, an Internet website that provides tools allowing advocates to access congressional information. Thomas.gov is a valuable legislation tool that provides information on past, present, and future legislation; individual voting histories; and the Congressional Record and other products that allow advocates to track and learn about the workings of Congress.

Preparing for Meetings on The Hill

Following lunch the attendees began to prepare for meetings with congressional staff later in the week. This included a review by PVA staff on the status of recent legislation as well as information on pending legislation they would ask Congress to support. 

Advocacy staff outlined a number of point papers dealing with Social Security, respite care, and long-term-care support for people with disabilities. Legislation staff outlined point papers on proposed legislation for the Fiscal Year 2012 federal budget, the problems of veterans being inappropriately billed for healthcare, increased compensation for those with significant disabilities, and protecting the VA healthcare system.

The first day concluded with Mark Daley, PVA director of Communications, providing insights and information on use of the Message Box, a technique to ensure PVA chapter messages are presented clearly and completely when dealing with the media. The presentation included a demonstration on how to keep “on message” while dealing with aggressive media interviewers.

The seminar’s second day began with attendees hearing from staff members of the majority and minority House and Senate Committees on Veterans’ Affairs. They discussed the challenges of tight future budgets and that Democratic and Republican chairmen and ranking members, as well as the entire committee, would work with the administration to protect veterans’ healthcare. There were many questions for the staffers, including inquiries on threats to the VA budget and its effect on specialized care for spinal-cord injury and prosthetic services.

Employment

Christine Griffin, deputy director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM), next talked about efforts in the federal government to hire people with disabilities and veterans. She commented on the President’s Executive Order 13518, signed in November 2009, which established the Veterans Employment Initiative. As a result, veterans were 30.2% of total new federal hires during the first six months of FY 2010 compared to 26.8% in the same period in FY 2009. Veteran Employment program offices were established in 24 federal agencies. 


Texas PVA President David Fowler (left) and Legislative Director Darrell Wilson review information before visiting Capitol Hill.

The www.FedsHireVets.gov website went online in January 2010 to create an information gateway on federal employment for veterans. Griffin advised that veterans looking for federal employment should start at that website or ask for the veterans program officer at any particular agency.

President Obama signed Executive Order 13548 on July 26, 2010, ordering the federal agencies to increase hiring of people with disabilities. Griffin discussed OPM’s oversight of this program and alerted PVA members to Schedule A, a program for federal employment of people with disabilities. Certain service positions are open to people eligible for Schedule A on a noncompetitive basis. 

Healthcare

Connie Garner, executive director, AdvanceCLASS Inc., discussed her experience in enacting the Community Living Assistance Services and Supports (CLASS) Act as part of healthcare reform. Garner was a long-term staffer for Senator Ted Kennedy and shared his commitment to this and other long-term-care services. She called on PVA members to share their stories of being healthy one day and then experiencing the sudden need for personal care after a catastrophic injury. It sparked conversation among the attendees about planning for individual as well as the nation’s looming long-term services needs.

Interaction in PVA 

After lunch, the seminar included a new panel of PVA department staff,  “How May I Help You?” and focused on the interaction between PVA National staff and PVA chapters. The panel included Lana McKenzie, associate executive director, Medical Services; Sherman Gillums, acting associate executive director, Veterans Benefits; and Mark Lichter, director of Architecture. Each one outlined how National Office departments could support chapter activities and how critical it was for chapters to provide insight and information to allow the National Office to effectively aid the chapters.

Travel

After a break, the sessions turned to air travel.  Rhonda Basha, director, Office of Disability Policy and Outreach, had a lively session on security issues for people with disabilities at airports.  Many attendees related incidents where they had been asked to expose leg bags or transfer from their wheelchairs, had to remove shoes, or were separated from their carry-on baggage. 

Basha said none of these incidents should have occurred, these practices were not permitted under normal circumstances, and that training was constantly being updated. She directed  passengers with disabilities to the TSA website, www.tsa.gov/travelers/airtravel/specialneeds/index.shtm, for advice on what to expect.

A new practice is that passengers will be asked to thoroughly brush over any leg bag or other similar device, then submit their hands to be swiped for traces of explosives. Basha noted current imaging technology is not accessible to wheelchair users, but TSA is developing technology that will be universal design and all can use.

Blane Workie of the Department of Transportation’s Aviation Civil Rights Branch then discussed Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) enforcement. DOT has stepped up enforcement, imposing penalties and reaching settlements with a number of airlines this year. She noted DOT is more likely to investigate an egregious violation—e.g., being denied transportation, or physical injury—than a lesser one unless there are enough complaints to establish a practice.  She was joined by Marcus England of the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Civil Rights, which now includes accessibility requirements in its civil rights compliance reviews for airports. FAA has authority over airport owners and operators as recipients of federal financial assistance.  Disability compliance reviews address all areas from parking and baggage retrieval to information systems and relief areas for service animals.

Visits to The Hill

On March 22, seminar participants had the opportunity to spend the day at congressional offices on Capitol Hill. Although the legislators were not present, this provided a tremendous opportunity to meet in a more relaxed environment with their staff members. In many cases, longer meetings were possible because of fewer  activities going on while the senators and representatives were back in their states and districts.

PVA members and chapter representatives had the opportunity to provide a more in-depth understanding of the concerns facing veterans and people with disabilities. Reports from the meeting indicated that staff supported helping protect those who have given so much for this nation.

Change for the Better?

While the seminar did not fit into the normal traditional mold or sequence of previous years, with the changes came greater opportunities as well.  Longer presentations as well as the chance for expanded meeting time at congressional offices in the end may have made this year’s seminar even more successful than in the past. 

Even though the opportunity to meet with senators or representatives was lost, the ability to convey concerns on the risks to VA healthcare and the needs of veterans with spinal-cord injury and disease was not. Success was in the information presented and the almost 200 meetings held with congressional staff.

It was a clear win for PVA chapters and all members of PVA.

Contact: PVA Government Relations, 800-424-8200.

 

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