Determined to Effect Change

Neither snow nor sleet kept PVA’s Advocacy and Legislation Seminar from working to improve benefits and health care services for veterans and others with disabilities.

Rough winter weather in early March wasn’t enough to stop key discussions on items such as Social Security, air travel and legislative issues during Paralyzed Veterans of America’s (PVA) annual Advocacy and Legislation Seminar in Arlington, Va.

Roughly 70 representatives from 30 of PVA’s 34 chapters made their way through snow, sleet and freezing rain to attend the seminar hosted by PVA’s Government Relations Department.

The seminar is an opportunity for chapter members to meet with PVA national staff and policy makers from federal agencies and other nonprofit organizations. The event culminates with a trip to Capitol Hill to engage representatives and senators on issues that matter to PVA.

Making The Skies Friendly

As in years past, air carrier access remained a hot topic and Anne Hammond from Aviation Consumer Protection at the Department of Transportation (DOT) addressed several issues.

Hammond reiterated the rights afforded through the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA). She detailed how all airlines must assist passengers with disabilities with getting on and off the plane, including through the use of lifts, ramps or boarding devices.

This assistance also includes accessing key areas of the terminal and, upon request, to the entrance of public restrooms. Access to a bathroom isn’t reserved for just people, either. Upon request, the carrier can also assist a passenger and his or her guide dog to a designated animal relief area.

Accessible requirements inside the plane include a movable aisle armrest for ease of transfer, an on-board aisle chair, accessible lavatories on two-aisle aircraft and stowage space for a single-passenger wheelchair, upon request.

The ACAA applies to all U.S. carriers and foreign carriers with flights originating in the United States. Carriers can’t charge a fee for boarding or stowage of a passenger’s wheelchair or assistive devices.

Rep. Lois Frankel (D-Fla.), right, meets with Paralyzed Veterans of America Florida Chapter members Charles Brown, center, and Joseph Del Vecchio.

Passengers with disabilities who feel they’ve been discriminated against should first ask to speak with an airline complaints resolution official and file a formal complaint. Complaints received by the Department of Transportation (DOT) are reviewed by analysts, then entered and tracked in a computer database.

Complaints are referred to the airline for a written response to the consumer and DOT within 30 days. The DOT reviews the complaint and response to determine whether any ACAA violations occurred and provides an investigation summary to both parties. Violations of regulations are pursued by aviation enforcement attorneys.

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Filing ADA Complaints

Representatives from the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division also touched on filing complaints.

Speaking about the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), they announced the implementation of a new electronic method to file complaints. Prior to this development, complaints had to be communicated by mail or email.

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Avoiding Social Security Cuts

Social Security was another major area of concern.

Social Security Works co-founder Nancy Altman described a variety of attacks being directed against the system and how to respond to them. She also outlined several proposals to enhance Social Security and shore up its long-term solvency without resorting to cuts in benefits.

This session was used as background for discussion on a PVA point paper calling for measures to avoid a potential cut in Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits in 2016 and for other improvements.

The point paper comes as Social Security is once again receiving considerable attention from Congress this year. The disability insurance trust fund is expected to be depleted sometime in 2016, which would trigger a 20% cut in SSDI benefits.

This shortfall could be corrected with a simple rebalancing of payroll taxes flowing into the retirement and survivors and disability trust funds.

However, the House of Representatives has created a situation in which Social Security benefits will have to be cut or revenues raised in order to forestall the reduction. PVA opposes this attempt to undermine Social Security and believes it’s time to promote efforts to enhance the program’s benefits.

PVA is also requesting help from Congress in creating a separate Complex Rehabilitation Technology (CRT) benefit under Medicare. CRT refers to products and services, including medically necessary, individually configured, manual and power wheelchair systems, adaptive seating systems, alternative positioning systems and other mobility devices.

In 2008, Congress recognized that complex rehab power wheelchairs are unique and more specialized than standard durable medical equipment (DME) and should be treated differently. As a result, these items were exempted from inclusion in Medicare’s new DME competitive acquisition program.

PVA is asking Congress to pass the Ensuring Access to Quality Complex Rehabilitation Technology Act, a bipartisan bill that will create a separate benefit category for complex rehab technology.

Protecting Specialized Services

Legislative issues took center stage on day two.

Participants received information about legislation passed in 2014, including the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act (VACAA). Additionally, PVA Deputy Executive Director Sherman Gillums Jr., and prosthetics consultant Fred Downs highlighted several issues stemming from the transfer of prosthetic purchases over $3,000 to Veterans Health Administration contracting officers.

Protecting specialized services and expansion of the Comprehensive Family Caregiver Program administered by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) received the most attention.

One of PVA’s chief concerns is what goes unmentioned by Congress in light of VACAA dialogue: Most PVA members rely entirely on the VA to receive specialized services that can’t be duplicated in the private sector.

PVA recognizes the VA must tap into every resource available to meet veterans’ needs. However, PVA believes moving veterans out of the “veteran-specific” care within the VA could lead to a reduction of health care services and increased costs in the federal budget.

Concerns over the Comprehensive Family Caregiver Program were also discussed. The program is currently only available to veterans who were injured during military service on or after Sept. 11, 2001. PVA believes that arbitrary date is an unjust barrier to support services.

PVA acknowledges that there’s a cost to expanding the program, but believes the long-term savings substantially outweigh it. PVA thinks Congress should immediately eliminate the date of injury requirement and include “serious illness” as a criterion for the program.

Additional issues addressed during this session included travel reimbursements for non-service connected catastrophically disabled veterans; inclusion of reproductive services by the VA for veterans with service-connected catastrophic disabilities; reinstatement of the annual capacity reporting requirement for VA specialized services without a specific end date; and an increase in the age for covered dependent children from 21 to 26 years of age.

On The Hill

Attendees spent the seminar’s final day meeting with their representatives on Capitol Hill.

By late in the afternoon, nearly half of the House of Representatives and Senate met with PVA members and learned about the issues that most affect veterans with catastrophic disabilities.

This year’s seminar continued to stress the work needed to improve benefits and health care services to veterans and people with disabilities. It also reaffirmed the undeniable impact of grassroots advocacy in the fight to influence policy on Capitol Hill. Pushing forward on benefits and health care issues requires efforts from the chapter level to PVA national.

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