Congressional Record Statement of Senator Daniel K. Akaka
Madam President, I urge my colleagues to support S. 1163, as amended, the Blinded Veterans Paired Organ Act of 2007. This bill would expand benefit eligibility for veterans with service-connected vision impairment and enhance the burial and memorial benefits offered by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
This legislation, which I introduced in April of this year, has subsequently been amended and reported favorably by the Committee on Veterans' Affairs. As amended, S. 1163 would modify the standard that the Department of Veterans Affairs uses when determining blindness and improve compensation for veterans who experience impairment of vision in both eyes. The measure would also enhance burial and memorial benefits for veterans , and further maintain the integrity of veterans benefits by making certain that those in receipt of certain needs-based benefits qualify for such benefits.
Vision impairment is a serious disability that frequently results from injuries sustained on the battlefield. We are all aware that traumatic brain injuries caused by roadside bombs on the Iraqi highways are one of the greatest dangers that our service men and women face in Iraq. These injuries are frequently accompanied by damage to the individual's vision. As of August of this year, VA had granted service-connection for vision impairment to 230 veterans of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. These veterans face significant readjustment challenges when they return to civilian life. Often, they find that they cannot resume the same occupations or daily activities that were staples of their lives before their injuries.
This bill would enhance disability compensation benefits for two distinct groups of veterans with impaired vision due to service--those with service-connected blindness in one eye who subsequently suffer loss of vision in the other eye later in life and those who receive special monthly compensation for multiple disabilities, including vision impairment. In both cases, this legislation would amend the vision impairment criteria used by VA so as to encompass veterans with 20/200 vision or less, the standard for blindness used by the Social Security Administration and the American Medical Association.
Earlier this session, the House passed a companion bill, H.R. 797, the Dr. James Allen Veteran Vision Equity Act, which would make the same change to the paired organ vision criteria as S. 1163. I take this opportunity to acknowledge the sponsor of that bill, Representative TAMMY BALDWIN of Wisconsin. A long-time ophthalmologist at the VA hospital in Madison, WI, Dr. James Allen, brought the issue to Representative Baldwin's attention several years ago and she has since worked to make the necessary change on behalf of blinded veterans . Representative Baldwin and Dr. Allen deserve thanks and credit for their efforts on behalf of veterans .
The amended bill also includes several provisions that would enhance burial and memorial benefits for veterans. I will briefly describe them.
The amended bill would permanently authorize VA to provide government headstones or markers for the privately-marked graves of veterans interred at private cemeteries. Current law authorizes VA to furnish, upon request, an appropriate headstone or marker for the grave of an eligible individual who died after September 10, 2001, and who is buried in a private cemetery, notwithstanding that the grave is marked by a headstone or marker furnished at private expense. Thus, in some cases, an individual's grave may have two markers--one privately-purchased and one furnished by VA. Prior to 2001, this authority had been suspended for 11 years, making those who died between November 1, 1990, and September 10, 2001, ineligible for the benefit. Furthermore, the current authority is only temporary, set to expire on December 31, 2007 . This bill would address these temporal constraints by eliminating the sunset and making the authority permanent, and by making the authority retroactive to cover the 11-year gap in current law. In addition, this bill would give VA the authority to furnish a new medallion or other device that could be placed on an existing grave marker in a private cemetery to signify that the deceased was a veteran , in lieu of providing a second marker or headstone.
The amended bill would also repeal the current 2-year window within which States must file for reimbursement from VA for the interment or inurnment of the unclaimed remains of deceased veterans . To assist States in meeting some or all of their cemetery operations and maintenance expenses, current law requires VA to pay to States a $300 plot allowance for the interment or inurnment of eligible veterans and reserve component members. In order to receive plot allowance revenue, States must currently submit claims within 2 years after the permanent burial or cremation of the remains has occurred. However, the 2-year window within which States must file can prove difficult to meet in situations in which remains are not identified as those of a veteran until after the 2-year period has expired.
Finally, the amended bill would authorize $5 million to cover a portion of the operational and maintenance expenses of State cemeteries under criteria to be determined by VA. The need to incentivize greater participation by States in the State cemetery grant program was discussed in a December 19, 2000, VA-contracted report entitled An Assessment of the Burial Benefits Administered by the Department of Veterans Affairs. The report found that an option for better serving veterans and their families was to ``provide maintenance support to State veterans cemeteries.''
I am pleased to advise my colleagues that the provisions in this bill are paid for by utilizing the National Directory for New Hires to make certain that those in receipt of certain needs-based benefits qualify for such benefits. The savings from this provision more than pays for the expansion of benefits to veterans that are included in this bill.
This is a sensible bill that would provide small but important improvements to benefits of great importance to many veterans and their families. I urge my colleagues to support its passage.
November 2, 2007