Thursday, June 10, 2010

Breaks just like a little girl





In the US today, the Economic Opportunity Subcommittee (House Veterans Affairs Committee) held a legislative hearing. To move the hearing along, Chair Stephanie Herseth Sandlin noted that she and the Ranking Member John Boozman were entering their statements into the record but not reading them or summarzing them during the time allotted for the hearing. What bills is Congress pushing for veterans? And would they be effective? The first panel was House members explaining their legislation.

US House Rep Peter DaFazio explained how, since the eighties, Oregon's Congressional offices had been able to do a work-study program with the VA giving the veterans work opportunities as they pursued higher education, additional skills and a nice credit on their resumes. However, in 2009 they were all informed that this would no longer be possible. "Somehwere in the depths of the VA bureaucracy, lawyers have determined this highly successful program was never authorized and is now scheduled for termination." This would create a number of lost jobs for Oregon veterans and would do so when the economy is already poor, employment opportunities hard to come by and the Oregon veterans rate of unemployment stands at over 12%. To rememdy the situation and keep the VA work-study program, DaFazio is proposing HR 4765 which would authorize the program in Oregon and hopefully create more VA work-study jobs in other states. The Subcommittee Chair and Ranking Member were both work-study students in college and Boozman is an optometrist, FYI.

US House Rep Cliff Stearns bill is HR 3685 and attempts to make it easier for veterans visiting the VA page to easily navigate through employment opportunities: "drop- down menu titled 'Veterans Employment' on its home page" which would combine government and private sector employment for veterans. It would also make the searches easier and more specific (including region).

US House Rep Jeff Fortenberry bill is HR 114. Fortenberry hopes to catch those veterans who do not use the Post-9/11 GI Bill for education because not everyone wants or needs to go to college. Fortenberry wants to provide more business opportunity by providing start-up funds for small businesses "to permit veterans elegible for assistance under the Montgomery GI Bill to elect to use those benefits to establish and operate a business that they own as a primary source of income."

The second panel was made up of veterans advocates: Richard Daley (Paralyzed Veterans of America), Michael R. Duenas (American Optometric Association), Eric A. Hilleman (Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States), Catherine A. Trombley (American Legion) and Thomas Zampieri (Blinded Veterans Association). It was called to order by acting Chair Harry Teague (voting requirements meant there were breaks between panels).

Richard Daley felt HR 114 "will be very important to some veterans." Daley noted, "Every veteran does not want to attend college for four years," and this would allow those with business inclinations to pursue their dreams. HR 3685 would merge employment into one site on the VA's main page and Daley stated, "What a great idea. Why didn't we do this years ago?" HR 4319 was not introduced in the first panel. This bill is sponsored by US House Rep Jerry Moran and reads, "To amend title 38, United States Code, to provide for certain improvements in the laws relating to specially adapted housing assistance provided by the Secretary of Veterans Affairs." Daley stated PVA "strongly supports" this and would assist veterans with needed home modifactions that disabilities may require. They do advocate for this being a permanent program and not a pilot.

Catherine A. Trombley said that they endorses part of HR 3685 (making employment listings for veterans on the VA home page easier). What part do they not endorse? "Drop-down menu" which they feel could bind the web page to some format even if new formats were replacing it all over the internet. HR 114 is supported by the American Legion (this is the small business effort). The work study was supported with reservations about the duties a veteran might be doing and concerns that a veteran speaking to another veteran on behalf of the work study program might be seen as an 'expert.'

Eric A. Hilleman stated his organization does not favor HR 114. "The intent of the GI Bill is to provide education and training," he stated. He noted business skills could be increased by classes or courses. The point of the GI Bill, he maintained, was "not to provide start-up money for a business" but to provide education, training and skills. They did support the work study (HR 4765) for both the experience and "the jump start on their career." June 30th, he stated, other work-study programs would be phased out. Steps to extend the programs are "tied up in another bill HR 1037" which passed the Senate in October 2009 and the House in July of last year but is stuck in reconciliation at present. Hilleman noted that the VFW not only supports work-study but itself offers internships. HR 5484 is strongly supported by the VFW. This bill was introduced by House Rep Harry Teague and reads: "To direct the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to establish an annual award program to recognize businesses for their contributions to veterans' employment, and for other purposes." Note that all the above is based on oral testimony. Written opening statements were far longer. In Hilleman's written testimony, HR 5484 has no number but is listed as "Draft Bill -- Veterans-Friendly Business Act of 2010."

Thomas Zampieri referred back to the Subcommittee's meeting last fall (November 19th, see the November 20th snapshot).

Dr. Thomas Zampieri : I want to thank you (Chair Herseth-Sandlin) and Ranking Member Boozman for introducing HR 5360 Blind Veterans Adaptive Housing Improvement Act. This came out of the hearing that we had last fall on different changes that could possibly be made in regards to adaptive housing grant program. And we had had problem with the restrictive language that was currently in place of 5/200 being used as the definition for being eligible for this grant. The standards for blindness is 20/200 or 20 degress less of peripheral field loss and we would ask that this be changed. Several reasons why. One is that a lot of individuals who are at the accepted standard of 20/200 are legally blind and they need to be able to access the adaptive housing grant in order to make changes so that they can live independently in their own homes. And this would also be consistent with what Public Law 110-157, which was HR 797, which passed back in December 2007 which corrected another problem in VBA where they were using 5/200 standard in order for paired organ. I would point out that it was sort of interesting that when that originally came up there was a lot of concern that we're going to be opening up the system for -- one estimate was like 45,000 veterans. And since that change, the actual number of veterans that have applied under the paired organ thing using the 20/200 standard is less than 500. So it's difficult when you get into these things, I think, sometimes to determine exactly the numbers that may fall out because when you're talking about clinical standards versus the-the service connected numbers of veterans who are all service connected for vision problems you may be led down the path of thinking this is a lot more veterans than what our experience has been. So we appreciate that you've introduced this. As I've testified before, there's tremendous numbers of OIF and OEF service members coming back with a variety of Traumatic Brain Injuries with vision problems and impairments and they are falling into this problem of not meeting this criteria in order to be able to have the grants. So I appreciate being able to testify today and be happy to answer any of your questions.

And we'll note Duenas nearly in full as well due to the fact that there is a feeling among veterans participating in this site's survey that blindness is an injury that's just not covered.

Dr. Michael R. Duenas: The AOA with more than 36,000 members in over 6500 communities nationwide shares your commitment to serving America's veterans including those blinded and vision disabled. In fact, many years ago the AOA proudly supported the creation of the Veterans Health Administration Optometry Service and during the more than a quarter of a century.since its inception the Optometry Service evolved into providing the majority of primary eye care and low vision rehabilitation services to our nation's veterans. Today we proudly off our support for HR 536 -- 5360, I'm sorry. This act is much needed in the special needs housing program. We believe that it is an important program that provides a vital link for our disabled veterans and helps them gain a sense of normalcy as they adjust to civilian life and a new disability. The AOA shares the Committee's concern that visual acuity standard is in need of refinement and today I would like to make three points regarding those refinements. First, as you know, the current law excludes coverage to many disabled veterans who are legally blind because it sets the threshold four times higher than the legal definition of blindness. HR 5360 will fix this lasting problem and will ultimately help our wounded warriors. The AOA, as such, supports the proposed modified standard visual acuity elegibility to include visual acuity of 20/200 as opposed to a four times worse requirement of 5/200. Secondly, through the VA optometry service, hundreds of highly trained doctors of optometry provide a critical array of high quality care, prevention, treatment and rehabilitation so as not to deny benefits for blinded, disabled veterans that used assisted medical technologies, the AOA believes that the qualified statement of best corrected needs further refinement. Without additional modification, the act could exclude legally blind veterans using special medical prescribed, low vision devices such as mounted telescopes, reverse telescopes and other special medical equipment. These devices are not considered standard glasses and are not standard, corrective lenses. Third, the AOA believes that the current definition of blindness contained in HR 5360 may not fully relate field loss to the equivalency of visual acuity loss in each eye. This determination of funcitonal equivalency is important and as such the AOA recommends that the language defining legal blindness should be consistent with the commonly used and recognized definition of legal blindness which is referenced in our written statement. Therefore the AOA recommends that the final language of the Veterans Housing Improvement Act of 2010 read as proposed in our statement submitted for the record.

In the written statement, the recommended final language reads:

Section 101(b)(2)(A) of title 38, United States Code, is amended by striking "5/200 visual acuity or less" and inserting "20/200 visual acuity or less, the better eye with the use of a standard correcting lens. An eye which is accompanied by a limitation in the field of vision such that the widest diameter of the visual field subtends an angle no greater than 20 degrees shall be considered for purposes in this paragraph as having a central visual acuity of 20/2000 or less."

We'll note this exchange on why the blindness definition needs to be altered.

Chair Stephanie Herseth Sandlin: Dr. Zampieri, if we could start with you, can you just explain in layman's terms the different between the 5/200 standard and the 20/200 standard?

Thomas Zampieri: Yes, the 5/200 is what a blind individual at five feet would be able to see versus a normal vision person would be able to see the same thing at 200 feet. And the 20/200 is the accepted standard for legal blindess and so, 20 feet, a blind individual, for example, would be able to see something on the eye chart that, again, somebody with normal vision at 200 feet would be able to see. And so all fifty states define legal blindess as 20/200 and Social Security and ironically VBA's 20/200 for determination of 100% service-connected for blindness. And so this would hopefully answer your question, but it would make it all standardized.

Chair Stephanie Herseth Sandlin: So you're not aware of anywhere else -- so you've just indicated even with the other VA programs, they're using the 20/200 standard for purposes of calculating disability, service connected disability.

Thomas Zampieri: Correct.

Chair Stephanie Herseth Sandlin: But, as far as you're aware, the only place where the 5/200 standard is still being used within government, within industry is -- within the profession -- is in the specially adapted housing program?

Thomas Zampieri: Right. In fact, ironically when the HR 797 was being worked on, I stumbled into the Senate version of that bill four years ago -- I actually tried to correct this 5/200 in the adaptive housing. I'm not sure how it got left out. But anyway, I think somebody on that side had realized that it was this other area and I wish it had been fixed all at once. But, yeah, this is the only place I know of in the VA's regulations where 5/200 is being applied.

There were many bills covered in the written statements that were not covered in the hearing. For example, HR 4635 (not discussed on the first panel) is a bill introduced by House Rep Marcia Fudge and it reads, "To require lenders of loans with Federal guarantees or Federal insurance to consent to mandatory mediation." The bill has ten co-sponsors (Maxine Waters, Bob Filner, Eleanor Holmes Norton, Keith Ellison, Sheila Jackson-Lee, Kendrick Meek, Mary Jo Kilroy, Danny Davis, Betty Sutton and Alan Grayson). But the above are the ones the speakers chose to emphasize in their oral statements.

While the Subcommittee explored needed veterans issues, another one exploded in the press today. Luis Martinez (ABC News) reports, "The Army has announced major leadership changes at Arlington National Cemetery after an investigation determined that at least 211 graves may have been improperly marked or lack the necessary paperwork. Army Secretary John McHugh announced at a Pentagon briefing today that he was replacing cemetery superintendent John Metzler and placing his deputy, Thurman Higgenbotham, on administrative leave while some of his actions are investigated." Yeganeh June Torbati (New York Times) quotes McHugh stating, "That all ends today." David Martin (CBS Evening News -- link has text and should have video shortly) quotes McHugh stating, "There's simply no excuse and on behalf of the United States Army, on behalf of myself, I deeply apologize to the families of the honored fallen."

Pentagon Papers whistle blower Daniel Ellsberg was Scott Horton's guest for yesterday's Antiwar Radio. They're discussing Bradley Manning. Who? Monday April 5th, WikiLeaks released US military video of a July 12, 2007 assault in Iraq. 12 people were killed in the assault including two Reuters journalists Namie Noor-Eldeen and Saeed Chmagh. Monday June 7th, the US military announced that they had arrested Bradley and he stood accused of being the leaker of the video.

Scott Horton: So there's this extraordinary story here, Dan, about the guy who supposedly, allegedly stole from the government -- if that's not an oxymoron -- video of the Collateral -- what became the Collateral Murder video as it was known, put out by WikiLeaks. And apparently he has been arrested and has been held by the military for at least the last couple of weeks. And they're saying is responsible for turning over another very important video of a massacre, this one in Afghanistan. And, although I think it's denied all around so far, the rumors are that he may hae even stolen and turned over to WikiLeaks as many as half -- as many as a quarter of a million State Dept cables at the highest level of classification. So we're all anxiously awaiting your comments, sir.

Daniel Ellsberg: Well I must say that I rise to the word "stolen" that you've used there a couple of times, as is commonly done. I was often described as having stolen the Pentagon Papers from the Defense Dept or the RAND Corporation and, in fact, as I got a legal education in this subject, having started as a layman and being one of the first people ever prosecuted for allegedly stealing information -- aside from leaking information, I discovered at that time it was very clear that you couldn't "steal" information, I had "copied" information. And, in fact, although there is a copyright law that's in almost all cases a civil law -- you know, you can sue for damages if copyrighted material has been =- has been copied, or misued, the government can't copyright information and for a very interesting reason. Information is seen as essentially the property of the people who are a part of this peculiar Constitutional system that was invented here. So there wasn't at that time any concept of stealing information at that point. Now as the electronic media has proliferated, I understand that the law has evolved in that respect and that they can make a case for stealing information. But in this case -- in any case -- he was copying information and putting it out and whether the government properly owns the information that War Crimes have been committed in Iraq or Afghanistan is, I would say, a very dubious proposition. Certainly it's not a clear cut legal proposition. So let's try to get away from the notion that he "stole" actually.

Scott Horton: Yeah. Well I think --

Daniel Ellsberg: That's information that we should have had in the first place. He copied it and didn't deprive the government. By the way, the reason as I understand it, that you didn't have a concept of "stealing" information in those days and perhaps not now was that stealing or theft is basically depriving an owner of the use or the value of property that he or she has and when you copy information you're not depriving the owner of any use of it. And that's certainly the case here.

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