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Grassroots Advocacy

Reprinted from PN/Paraplegia News June 2016

Discussing air carrier access, veterans' care and meeting face-to-face with members pf Congress were all part of PVA's annual Advocacy and Legislation Seminar

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Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA) was founded 70 years ago with the mission to change lives and build brighter futures for the nation’s veterans with spinal-cord injury or disease (SCI/D).

Legislative advocacy on behalf of those veterans, as well as others with disabilities, is a major part of that mission. It’s a year-round responsibility that includes the annual Advocacy and Legislation Seminar hosted by PVA’s Government Relations Department. 

Late this past February, 70 people from PVA chapters around the country met in Arlington, Va., to discuss issues of importance to PVA members and spend two days advocating on their behalf on Capitol Hill.

The seminar serves as an opportunity for chapter members to engage with PVA national staff, as well as network with policy makers from federal agencies and other nonprofit organizations. The event culminates when the chapter representatives meet with members of Congress to engage them on the legislative actions needed to advance PVA’s priorities.  

Improving Disability Access

The first day of the seminar focused on issues covered by the National Advocacy Program, primarily in the areas of disability civil rights.

As in years past, air carrier access issues drew serious interest, as this remains a high priority for PVA. The first of two sessions on the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) included presentations from Department of Transportation (DOT) officials responsible for ACAA implementation and enforcement. 

Officials briefed attendees on the DOT’s efforts to create training modules for airlines and their contract service providers to address the top four areas of complaints from travelers with disabilities:

1) Wheelchair and guide assistance at 
airports and on aircraft

2) Transport of wheelchairs and other
mobility aids in aircraft

3) Accessible aircraft seating accommodations


During his annual testimony, Paralyzed Veterans of America National President Al Kovach Jr., showed the May 22, 1970, issue of Life magazine that outlines the horrible conditions paralyzed veterans faced at the Bronx Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in New York.

4) Travel with service animals

The DOT also provided a status update on the proposed negotiated rulemaking (Reg Neg) on several issues of critical concern for people with disabilities in air travel, including access to lavatories on single-aisle aircraft and seating accommodations. DOT officials said at the seminar that a decision whether to proceed with a Reg Neg will 
be forthcoming.

This year marks the ACAA’s 30th anniversary. Despite progress, damaged assistance devices, lack of seating accommodations and inaccessible communications and lavatories continue to make it difficult for people with disabilities to fly.

In order to advance real changes to the ACAA, PVA urged attendees to share their air travel stories on PVA’s new online story portal at airaccess30.org. These stories help PVA’s advocacy efforts by highlighting the types 
of problems regularly faced by passengers with disabilities.

Attendees were also briefed on a number of legal issues related to voting, accessible stadiums, transportation and sidewalks. The stadium complaint was a direct response to PVA advocacy involving the University of Oklahoma.

PVA filed the complaint with the Department of Education, alleging that the university’s football ticketing policies and wheelchair seating options discriminated against fans with disabilities. The complaint resulted in a voluntary resolution agreement that will address PVA’s concerns when fully implemented. 

Veterans’ Health Care

The seminar’s second day focused on the National Legislative Program’s work. Attendees heard presentations from the majority and minority staffs of the House and Senate Committees on Veterans’ Affairs.

The most impactful part of the discussion involved the varying opinions about how veterans’ health care should be delivered. The spokesperson for Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) relayed his conviction that the veterans’ health care system should allow veterans to receive care when and where they want it. This position is a reflection of the ongoing debate about the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act of 2014.

Meanwhile, House and Senate Democratic staff members affirmed the critical need to maintain a viable Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). The spokesperson for Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), chairman of the House VA Committee, reaffirmed his support for a continuance of VA specialty care, as well as needed expansion of community care with veterans having a “choice.” 

VA Under Secretary of Health David Shulkin, MD, spoke at length about the efforts to bolster more rapid access to care, improve administrative processes and hire and retain the highest quality providers at medical centers. Shulkin expects the VA to reclaim its reputation and rightful place as a leader of high-quality health care. 

Legislative Priorities

The PVA Government Relations staff concluded the seminar’s training portion by discussing the organization’s legislative priorities for this session of Congress.

While a great deal of attention has been focused on reforming the delivery of veterans’ health care, most of that discussion doesn’t fully consider the specialized health care needs of veterans with catastrophic disabilities, particularly SCI/D.

The access problems these veterans face are usually not wait times or distance but the cost of travel. PVA continues to advance the expansion of travel benefits to include non-service connected, catastrophically disabled veterans and to reinstate the capacity reporting requirement for specialized services.

Since the congressionally mandated capacity reporting requirement expired in 2008, the VA hasn’t maintained its capacity to provide for specialized care, particularly spinal-cord injury care. Additionally, reductions in both in-patient beds and staff in its acute and extended care settings have been continuously reported throughout the system of care.

Other priorities include expanding eligibility for the VA’s Comprehensive Family Caregiver Program. Currently, it’s only available to veterans who are seriously injured because of their military service on or after Sept. 11, 2001. 

While there’s a cost to expanding the program, the long-term savings in institutional care substantially outweighs it. PVA believes Congress should immediately eliminate the date of injury requirement and include “serious illness” as a criterion for the program. 

PVA has also long sought to end the ban on the VA providing procreative services to veterans with a service-connected condition that prevents the conception of a child. From 2001 to 2013, more than 1,200 service members suffered a genitourinary injury resulting in the loss of, or compromised ability to have a child.

While the Department of Defense does provide reproductive services to service members and retired service members, the VA doesn’t. This disparity overlooks the country’s obligation to make severely disabled veterans as whole as possible.

Additionally, PVA is working to advance the Seniors and Veteran Emergency (SAVE) Benefits Act (HR 4144 and S 2251). This legislation would provide a one-time payment of $550 to Social Security beneficiaries, as well as veteran recipients of compensation and pension, as the Social Security Administration announced last October that there would be no cost-of-living adjustment this year.

More than one in five adult Social Security beneficiaries have served in the military, and veterans and their families comprise 35% of the Social Security beneficiary population.

Heading To The Hill

The highlight of the seminar was the two days attendees spent “storming the hill” and advocating for PVA’s priorities.

During that time, PVA members met with more than half of the House of Representatives and Senate. PVA continued to stress the work that must be done to improve benefits and health care services for veterans and people with disabilities and reaffirmed the undeniable impact of grassroots advocacy on Capitol Hill. 

On March 3, PVA National President Al Kovach Jr., delivered his annual testimony before a joint session of the House and Senate Committees on Veterans’ Affairs. 

Showing a copy of the May 22, 1970, issue of Life magazine that depicted the squalid conditions endured by paralyzed veterans at the Bronx VA Medical Center in New York, Kovach made it clear that such a tragedy could happen again if Congress relinquishes its responsibility to ensure quality care.

Kovach concluded that the protection of the VA systems of care doesn’t preclude the need for real VA accountability. However, he emphasized that Congress must remain committed to protecting the VA’s specialized health care systems upon which so many veterans with catastrophic disabilities rely. Kovach received a loud ovation for his comments.

For more information on becoming an advocate for veterans and people with disabilities, contact a local PVA chapter from the roster on page 11. Follow the PVA Government Relations Department on Twitter at @PVAGVR.  

Sarah Dean is PVA’s associate legislative director at its national office in Washington, D.C.   

 

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