Storming The Hill
This month's annual PVA advocacy and legislative seminar is working to bring a veteran-centric agenda to the 115th Congress.
March brings the promise of spring every year. It also brings one of my favorite traditions as Paralyzed Veterans of America’s (PVA) national associate director of government relations: spearheading the onslaught of our members to Washington, D.C., to meet face-to-face with their states’ elected U.S. senators and congressional representatives. As you’re reading this, our members may be storming Capitol Hill to carry our message forward. It’s a critical kickoff to our national advocacy efforts, as our members bring to these meetings a comprehensive policy agenda that reflects the interests and concerns of paralyzed and disabled veterans, all veterans and persons with disabilities. My team has been working through this agenda for months, preparing for these visits, as well as the precursor to them — a two-day learning experience to arm our PVA chapter representatives with the resources and education about our policy priorities for the year.
Following that training seminar and two days of storming the congressional offices, PVA National President Al Kovach Jr., will testify before a joint hearing of the House and Senate Committees on Veterans’ Affairs to advance our message and bring it all home. It’s a strategic, three-pronged approach that gives our issues the best possible launch with the new Congress. Our focus this year has been broken down into several key areas.
Health Care: Our Top Priority
The fundamental message of our national legislative program is “veterans must have access to high-quality, comprehensive and veteran-centric health care, as well as timely and accurate delivery of all earned benefits.” To achieve this ultimate goal, we focus on strengthening, reforming and sustaining the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) health care system, particularly its spinal-cord injury/disease (SCI/D) system of care, while also directing our efforts on improving the benefits claims and appeals process for our members and all veterans and improving the benefits provided to catastrophically injured veterans. National Associate Legislative Directors Sarah Dean and Gabriel Stultz are heading up this work.
The highest priority of PVA’s health care advocacy work is the protection of the VA’s specialized services, to include SCI/D care, blinded care, poly-trauma care and mental health care. The simple fact is these services aren’t duplicated in the private sector. And yet, there are many who would like to tear down the VA and turn over the delivery of veterans’ health care to the private sector. Unfortunately, this concept doesn’t contemplate the serious negative consequences that such a decision would have on the most important services the VA provides. Inherent in this effort is the need to provide sufficient funding for the VA to hire additional clinicians, to include physicians, nurses, psychologists, social workers and rehabilitation therapists to meet demand for services in the SCI/D system of care. For too long, the VA hasn’t maintained its capacity to provide specialized services to catastrophically disabled veterans. Fortunately, last year Congress approved legislation that reinstates the mandated capacity report for the VA’s specialized health care programs. PVA will now be able to leverage that information to advocate for increasing the number of critical staff positions in the SCI/D system.
Meanwhile, PVA members and veterans who generally rely upon the VA for their health care are faced with the very real prospect of significant expansion into the private health care marketplace. Unfortunately, those individuals advocating for massive expansion of community care (a road that may lead ultimately to full privatization) simply ignore the harmful consequences of that expansion. More care in the community doesn’t currently include protections unique to the VA health care under Title 38 U.S. Code, particularly including medical malpractice remedies governed by Title 38 USC Section 1151, clinical appeal rights, no-cost accredited representation and congressional oversight and public accountability. That’s why we’ll stand strong on the need to guarantee these protections as a part of veterans’ health care reform. While a great deal of attention will be focused on veterans’ health care in the 115th Congress, key issues must also be addressed in the area of claims for benefits and the appeals process.
First and foremost, PVA will continue to support comprehensive reform of the claims appeals process. PVA, along with our partners in the veterans service organization community, the Veterans Benefits Administration, the Board of Veterans Appeals and other key stakeholders, all reached an important agreement on appeals reform in 2016, but political gridlock prevented that work from being completed in law. We’ll be carrying that work forward this year. We’ll also draw attention to the inadequate level of Special Monthly Compensation (SMC) and specifically Aid and Attendance (A&A) benefits provided to veterans with the most catastrophic of service-connected disabilities. Studies have shown repeatedly that the rates of SMC and A&A benefits, particularly at the R1 and R2 levels (the highest SMC rates), are significantly lower than their out-of-pocket costs to pay for attendant care. PVA will advocate for SMC and A&A benefits to be appropriately increased.
Caregivers: Supporting Veterans’ Hidden Heroes
PVA will also continue its strong advocacy to expand eligibility for the VA’s Comprehensive Family Caregiver Program to veterans of all eras, not just those injured after Sept. 11, 2001. Since the program was originally created in 2009, thousands of catastrophically disabled veterans who would benefit from its services have been denied access. The only excuse generally given for this exclusion is the cost of the program; however, this is an unacceptable excuse to PVA and its members, nearly all of whom are denied access to this program. PVA members understand the importance of caregivers more than any other cohort of veterans. It’s time that Congress corrects this inequity.
Advocacy: The Heart of the Matter
As we work to move these legislative initiatives forward, PVA’s national advocacy program will be driven to provide veterans and all people with disabilities equal access to the opportunities and freedoms that allow them to live, work, travel and fully participate in society. To achieve this goal, our staff will focus on strengthening and protecting the integrity of the systems of civil rights that support all people with disabilities. This effort will be challenged by those who believe costs and secondary interests supersede these important programs. Senior Associate Advocacy Directors Susan Prokop and Lee Page and Associate General Counsel for Corporate and Government Relations Heather Ansley will be our lead advocates on these issues.
Air Travel: The Unfriendly Skies
Another key area PVA is focused on is the first concern it hears from PVA members — the wide array of problems people with disabilities experience during the course of air travel. These problems exist despite the passage of the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) that guarantees people with disabilities should receive consistent and nondiscriminatory treatment during air travel and requires air carriers to accommodate the needs of passengers with disabilities. PVA played a leading role in the passage of the ACAA. However, it’s clear that many airlines haven’t made a good-faith effort to meet the needs of passengers with disabilities. That’s why last year, the PVA Government Relations Department launched an initiative leading the broader disability community through the national advocacy program to bring attention to the successes and failures in air travel for passengers with disabilities and to ultimately see meaningful reforms made to the ACAA.
As a part of this initiative, individuals with disabilities now have a platform for sharing their stories, photos, videos and graphics about their air travel experiences at airaccess30.org. The website seeks the input of passengers with disabilities in showing the progress that has been made, as well as the work that remains, to accomplish the true spirit of the ACAA. And our advocacy will be even stronger in 2017, as we work to improve the air travel experience of our members and all people with disabilities.
Social Insurance Benefits: A Vital Safety Net
Finally, PVA’s National Advocacy Program will concentrate its efforts on protecting and strengthening Social Security and Medicare. This work will be particularly important in the face of efforts to significantly reform entitlement programs, particularly Social Security and Medicare, that would undermine their viability and negatively impact many veterans and people with disabilities. American workers have earned these vital social insurance benefits. Because these programs represent an economic safety net for millions of Americans, Social Security and Medicare should be strengthened and efforts to undermine these programs through benefit cuts or privatization must be rejected. It’ll be imperative that PVA’s voices are heard this year as we try to effect real changes that will benefit PVA members and people with disabilities by defending against any effort to undermine those vital programs. PVA asks that you educate yourself about the issues outlined here. Reach out to the government relations department in the national office to learn more about what it’s doing and how you can support these efforts.
Together, we can continue to achieve success on Capitol Hill for PVA members and the larger disability community.
Carl Blake is PVA’s associate executive director of Government Relations at its national office in Washington, D.C.
Storming The Hill
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