BLINDED VETERANS ASSOCIATION (BVA)
FLORIDA REGIONAL GROUP, INC.
3801 Coco Grove Avenue
Miami, Florida 33133
Newsletter - July 2004
This Newsletter contains information which may be of importance to you and your family. Benefits and services available to Blinded Veterans will be reviewed from a historical perspective as to how these benefits and services were obtained. Over the years, most of the benefits and services available to veterans in general were obtained through the cooperative effort of many organizations and individuals. However, in almost all cases, the benefits and services specifically for Blinded Veterans resulted directly through the efforts of the Blinded Veterans Association (BVA). In 1945, when a small group of idealistic Blinded Veterans founded the BVA, there were few, if any, benefits and services available specifically for Blinded Veterans. They accepted the responsibility of being the advocate for Blinded Veterans with the Executive and Legislative Branches of the government. As a result, the BVA was Chartered by the United States Congress as the sole organization to specifically represent Blinded Veterans before all branches of government. The first three goals the founders established were to: 1. Provide aid and assistance to each other to promote the personal, social, and vocational rehabilitation of their fellow Blinded Veterans; 2. Urge the VA to accept its responsibilities to provide blind rehabilitation training to Blinded Veterans; 3. To work with Congress to obtain adequate compensation for the disability of blindness.
1. The BVA established an office in Washington, D.C. to coordinate the dissemination of information to Blinded Veterans. It promoted the establishment of Regional Groups to expand the contacts with all Blinded Veterans in their home areas. Although the BVA had a small staff to coordinate these activities, most of the work was done by volunteer Blinded Veterans helping one another.
2. The BVA contacted the Executive and Legislative branches of government. Members of the Veterans Affairs Committees in the Senate and House of Representatives were urged to pressure the VA to establish appropriate services for Blinded Veterans. General Bradley, then head of the VA, was contacted regarding these needs. Finally, the BVA got President Truman to sign an Executive Order requiring the VA to establish a Blind Rehabilitation Center (BRC). This resulted in the VA opening the first Blind Rehabilitation Center at Hines in July 1948.
3. The BVA primarily with the cooperation of the Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA) worked with Congress to establish Special Monthly Compensation (SMC) for veterans with very severe disabilities. The 100% rate was not sufficient to adequately compensate these severely disabled veterans. As a result, Congress passed statutory awards (SMC) above the 100% rate. For example: at present, 100% provides $2239 monthly to a single veteran. Blinded Veterans with vision of 5/200 or a 5 degree field are rated at paragraph L - $2785 monthly, a veteran with light perception only receives paragraph M - $3073 monthly and a totally blind veteran receives paragraph N - $3496. Over the years, the BVA has worked with Congress to improve the SMC with mid level ratings and combination rating; for example: a Blinded Veteran with deafness or the loss of an extremity may receive the maximum compensation paragraph O - $3907 monthly. Some veterans rated at paragraph O, who are in need of consistent aid and attendance may receive paragraph AR-1 $5584 monthly.
Other Benefits: In addition to improvements in compensation, the BVA has secured other benefits for Blinded Veterans. There are two Adaptive Housing Grants. The first $50,000 is primarily for wheelchair bound veterans. However, the large grant is also available to BV's with service connected blindness and the loss of a leg. The smaller Adaptive Housing Grant of $10,000, is available to service connected BV's. An $11,000 auto grant is also available to service connected BV's. The Adaptive Housing and auto grants are one time grants. Compensation and the above mentioned grants are available through the VA Regional Office in St. Petersburg. The Home Improvement and Structural Alteration (HISA) Grant is available through your local VA Medical Center. The HISA Grant provides $4100 to service connected BV's and $1200 to NSC BV's. This grant may be used for minor alterations to your home in relation to your disability. Contact the HISA Committee at your VA Medical Center.
Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC): In 1958, Congress passed legislation establishing the DIC Program. Initially DIC was paid to the survivors of military personnel killed on active duty or who died as a direct result of a service connected disability. During the next 19 years, the BVA worked with Congress to expand DIC eligibility. In 1978, Congress did amend the DIC Program. The survivors of 100% service connected veterans became eligible if the veteran had been rated at 100% for ten years, five years if continuously since discharge. Initially, DIC was paid according to the rank the veteran held on active duty. The BVA and PVA felt that rank was no longer reflective of the veterans income ten or more years after discharge. In 1991, the DIC Reform Act was passed by Congress. Now there are two DIC rates. The basic rate for the spouse is $967 monthly. The spouse who was married to a 100% SC veteran for 8 years or more prior to the veterans death would receive DIC of $1175 monthly. Each minor child would receive $241 monthly in DIC.
Initially, the BVA's primary emphasis was to secure services and benefits to service connected Blinded Veterans (BV'S). However, within a short time, it accepted the responsibility of representing all BV's. For example, when Hines Blind Center was open in 1948, its training was restricted to service connected BV's. The BVA felt that the training should be available to all BV's. The BVA worked with the VA and since the early 1950's, all BV's have been able to receive training at the VA Blind Centers. Over the years, the BVA has obtained most of the benefits for service connected BV's which were sought. For many years, the BVA has attempted to insure that all BV's received the services they needed.
NSC Pension: World War I veterans pressured Congress to establish a Pension for all WW I veterans. Congress never provided a general Pension. However, in later years, it established the NSC Pension for totally disabled veterans in financial need. Initially this was a small monthly amount with severe income limitations. After WW II, the BVA, with the cooperation of the PVA, and DAV, worked with Congress to provide an improved NSC Pension Program. Again the BVA worked to provide an increase in NSC Pension for the more severely disabled veterans. As a result, 3 NSC Pension levels were established: Basic Pension, House Bound Benefits, and Aid and Attendance Allowance. Presently, the Basic Pension provides $824 monthly to a single veteran, House Bound - $1007 monthly, and Aid and Attendance Allowance - $1375 monthly. These amounts may be increased for each dependent. There is still a significant income limitation but the monthly amount has been increased. The above listed amounts are reduced dollar for dollar by any income the veteran or his household receives.
As indicated earlier, the BVA got the VA to open the first BRC at Hines in 1948. Since then, the BVA has continued to work with the VA and Congress to fund the opening of nine more BRC's around the US. As the age of the veteran population has increased, the incidence of blindness in that population has significantly increased. The BVA has worked with the VA Blind Rehab Service (BRS) to alter the training at the BRC's to meet this challenge. In the early days, the BRC training lasted about 16 weeks and was geared primarily to the totally Blinded Veteran. Now, about 85% of the BV's attending a BRC have some limited residual vision. The BVA has worked with the BRS to update the training to meet the needs of this population. Now, the training is designed to maximize the BV's remaining vision and to provide the skills to help the BV remain independent.
Most BV's in Florida have had some contact with a Visual Impairment Service Team (VIST) Coordinator. This was not always the case. In the early 1960's, the BVA became concerned that due to the isolating effects of blindness, many BV's were not getting the services and benefits they needed and deserved. In 1963, the BVA entered into a research project with the VA, to evaluate that situation. The project, conducted at 10 VA stations,an completed an evaluation, similar to what is now the Annual VIST Review. The BVA took the results of that project to the VA Central Office. In 1967, the VIST Program was started at 60 VA stations (2 in Florida - Bay Pines and Miami). Initially the VIST Coordinator was a part time Social Worker. It quickly became apparent to the BVA, that in most cases, the VIST Coordinator needed to be full time and there needed to be VIST Programs at more than 60 VA stations. The BVA went to the VA and, in 1978, six full time VA Central Office funded VIST Coordinator positions were established, one in Florida. The BVA has continued to work to expand the VIST Program. Now, there are VIST Programs at 135 VA stations. Of the 93 full time VIST Coordinators, the BVA has obtained 56 through the VA Central Office, 34 directly funded by Congress, and 3 (West Palm Beach, Lake City, and Augusta, GA) were obtained through the local VA Medical Center. Florida has 10 full time VIST Coordinators and 3 part time VIST. This is more than any other state.
Many years ago, the BVA requested that the VA provide outpatient blind rehab training in the local community. This request went unanswered until 1995. At that time, the BVA obtained $5 million from Congress to establish a 15 bed BRC at Augusta, GA, to add 22 VIST positions, and to establish 16 Blind Rehabilitation Outpatient Specialist (BROS) positions. Two of those 16 BROS were allocated to Florida - Gainesville and Bay Pines. When the BRC was opened in West Palm Beach in 2000, 2 BROS positions were included in the staffing. This year, two additional BROS positions have been added in Orlando and Tampa. The BROS position in Orlando has been filled and recruiting is underway for the position in Tampa. This will bring to 6 the number of BROS providing service to Florida Blinded Veterans. No other state has that many BROS.
Since its inception, the BVA has promoted residential training at the VA Blind Rehab Centers (BRC). It is the best training of its nature, any place in the world. Consequently, when possible, the BVA urges all BV's to attend a BRC, at least once in his or her life. Initially, many prosthetics and sensory aids were not available to NSC BV's. The BVA worked with Congress and made it possible for NSC BV's to get some prosthetic and sensory aids through a BRC. Due to the long waiting list at the BRC's and since some BV's cannot go to a BRC, the BVA went to Congress to permit mechanical and electronic equipment to be provided on an outpatient basis. The law has been amended and this is now possible. The BVA is working with the Blind Rehab Service to identify local facilities that can provide quality training on certain complex devices (computers, etc.). Hopefully, the waiting list at the BRC can be shortened if quality training can be provided locally.
Florida Homestead Tax Exemption Two Florida Statutes provide total Homestead Tax Exemption to florida BV's. FS 196.081 provides Total Homestead Tax Exemption to 100% service connected veterans without income restriction. FS 196.101 provides Total Homestead Tax Exemption to individuals restricted to a wheelchair for mobility or who are legally blind. FS 196.101 has a total household income limitation of about $22,190 annually. For information contact your County Tax Appraiser and cite the indicated statutes.
Why Join the BVA? The information above includes only a small part of the benefits and services obtained by a small group of dedicated BVA staff and a large number of volunteer BV's dedicated to helping all Blinded Veterans. Did you once serve in the Armed Forces of the United States and currently are blind? If so, you will have specific knowledge of a problem and/or a condition that might be helpful to others. Very likely, you could benefit from talking to others who have similar conditions and learn how they are dealing with the ordinary and not so ordinary problems of daily living. The Blinded Veterans Association (BVA) was formed almost 60 years ago by BV's who realized that by joining together they had strength in numbers. The problems of the visually disabled veteran is unique and requires individual attention to solve. In 1945 when those original Blinded Veterans joined together, the political climate was very different from the present. A grateful country was anxious to provide any assistance to individuals who had made such great sacrifices in service to their country. Today, the Blinded Veteran is older and our needs have changed. Congress has a majority of members who have never served in the military. A grateful country is no longer aware of the sacrifices and problems faced by an aging population. It is only by joining together that we can make our voices heard by the Nation and Congress. The strength of your voice is needed by The BVA to make Congress and VA listen to the special needs of Blinded Veterans. The BVA has grown to over 10,500 members and we need your membership to stay strong. By joining your voice with the BVA, you increase your chance of being heard on the national, state, and local levels of government. The BVA is for any veteran who has a serious visual impairment brought on by aging, illness, or military service. You become a part of a very special brotherhood to support you in your time of need with advice, encouragement, and information. Together we can make a grateful country listen. Use the application enclosed in the print copy of this Newsletter and JOIN THE BVA TODAY. Annual dues are only $8. Better yet, consider becoming a Life or Associate Life Member, then, you won't have to pay dues ever again. Life(LM) and Associate Life (ALM) dues run from $40 to $80 depending on your age. You may start a LM or ALM with a down payment of $10 with the balance payable over the next 2 years. Check the application for the amount you would pay and JOIN THE BVA TODAY!