Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT). Regular readers of our Updates and Alerts know that we have mentioned this legislation frequently.
The bills proposed the elimination of co-payments required of catastrophically disabled veterans who are nonservice-connected and who must pay for inpatient rehabilitation services.
We mentioned in our summer issue that the House bill had merged into H.R. 3219 and was passed in July. We also mentioned that the equivalent Senate bill, S. 801, was still on the docket. Since that time, Chairman Akaka combined a benefits bill, S. 252, with S. 801, into S. 1963. Because a single Senator successfully held up S. 1963, more than six weeks of delay occurred. On November 19, the full Senate passed S. 1963 by a 98-0 margin.
As an additional bonus for blinded veterans, another key BVA issue was included in S. 1963. The issue related to tuition assistance for college students enrolled in academic programs that would prepare them to become vision rehabilitation professionals within the VA system. If students accept the funding, they make a commitment to work for VA Blind Rehabilitation Service (BRS) for three years. It is anticipated that the scholarship program will be especially effective in attracting new graduates to work as Blind Rehabilitation Outpatient Specialists (BROS).
Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) first worked on this legislation in the 110th Congress during 2007-08. He has continued his efforts in this the 111th Congress. The House version of the scholarship bill, H.R. 228, was merged into H.R. 3949 and passed in October.
Tracking bills such as the ones mentioned above, as they move up through Committees toward floor votes, is much like watching someone make sausage. In this case, I’m referring specifically to the manner in which general VA benefits and health care legislation has been combined with important bills that are specific to our organization’s membership and needs. Although “sausage production” is common in the legislative process, it has been even more prevalent in recent legislation.
If not for the strong support of certain members of Congress pushing for passage of our veterans bills, we would not enjoy this success. We especially thank again Senator Brown, Senator Sanders, and Representative Halvorson for their strong leadership and perseverance during the past few months. Many blinded veterans will be able to get the special rehabilitation services they need because of their efforts.
BVA supports the Veterans Pension Protection Act of 2009 (H.R. 3485) and appreciates the efforts of Representative Brian Higgins (D-NY-27) to introduce the bill. Blinded veterans receiving nonservice-connected pensions generally have very limited incomes and are clearly being penalized by the current VA pension rules requiring that all income be included for pension purposes.
When states or municipalities honor their blinded veterans by providing a small yearly “bonus or annuity,” it should be viewed as it is intended—as a “gift” for their service to the nation. Under the current policy, however, these small gifts are counted as income for tax purposes.
In the 110th Congress, with the support of Ways and Means Chairman Charles Rangel (D-NY-15), H.R. 3997, Section 202 stated: “State annuities for certain veterans are to be disregarded in determining Supplemental Security Income to prevent these annuities from being classified as income for tax purposes.”
BVA asked Representative Higgins to introduce VA Committee legislation to fix this issue after years of frustration. The legislatures of Massachusetts, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York currently provide a yearly small annuity for blinded veterans diagnosed with permanent blindness. The first three aforementioned states provide such annuities only to service-connected