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FRG Newsletter - July 2013

Fellow Blinded Veteran:

This month, we will celebrate the 238th anniversary of our Independence. Let us reflect on those years and particularly the 68 years since the Blinded Veterans Association was founded to represent and advocate for all Blinded Veterans. If we are to maintain and preserve the many services and benefits we enjoy, it is necessary for all Blinded Veterans to add their support to the BVA. It is most important that you read this Newsletter to remind you of how far we as Blinded Veterans have come in the past 68 years as a result of the work done for us by the BVA.

Many Blinded Veterans (BV's), whether their blindness is service connected or non-service connected are unaware of the history behind most of the services and benefits they receive from the VA. In this Newsletter we will try to give you 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. There were no Blind Rehab Centers (BRC), no VIST Coordinators, no BROS, and few prosthetic or sensory aids. 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 the United States Government. Initially, the BVA established 3 major goals. 1. Blinded Veterans helping Blinded Veterans 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 who did an excellent job in coordinating these activities, much of the work was done by volunteer Blinded Veterans helping one another. 2. To get the VA to accept its responsibilities to Blinded Veterans 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. 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 BRC at Hines in July 1948. 3. To obtain appropriate compensation for seriously disabled veterans. 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 $2816 monthly to a single veteran. BV's with vision of 5/200 or a 5 degree field are rated at paragraph L - $3504 monthly, a BV's with light perception only receives paragraph M - $3867 monthly and a totally blind BV receives paragraph N - $4399. 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 - $4917 monthly. Some veterans rated at paragraph O, who are in need of consistent aid and attendance, may receive paragraph AR-1 $7026 monthly. In addition, dependent allowances may be added to the amounts listed above for a spouse and dependent children. Other Benefits: In addition to improvements in compensation, the BVA has secured other benefits for Blinded Veterans. There are two Adaptive Housing Grants which were increased in late 2008, Section 2101 a, $64960 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 Grant, Section 2101 B, $12992 is available to service connected BV's. Initially, the Adaptive Housing grants were one time grants. In 2006, the 109 Congress passed legislation permitting eligible veterans who had not used all of their Section 2101 A or B grant to use the remainder again, up to 3 times. A BV who used the 2101 B grant but less than the present $12,992 may be eligible to use the difference. For information call Dennis Thompson at the VARO Adaptive Housing Unit at (727) 319-7602 for information. 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 VAMC. The HISA Grant provides $6800 to sc BV's and $2000 to NSC BV's. This grant may be used for minor alterations to your home in relation to your disability. Your VIST coordinator can help you with HISA.

Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC): In 1959, Congress passed legislation establishing Dependency and Indemnity Compensation . Initially DIC was paid to the survivors of military personnel killed on active duty or who died as a direct result of a SC 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% sc 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 $1215 monthly. The spouse who was married to a veteran consistently rated at 100% SC for 8 years or more prior to the veterans death would receive DIC of $1473 monthly. Each minor child would receive $301 monthly in DIC.

Initially, the BVA's primary emphasis was to secure services and benefits for sc veterans. However, within a short time, it accepted the responsibility to represent all BV's. For example, when Hines Blind Center was open its training was restricted to SC 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 SC BV's which were sought. For many years, the BVA has attempted to insure that all BV's received the benefits and services they deserved and 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 $1038 monthly to a single veteran, House Bound - $1269 monthly, and Aid and Attendance Allowance - $1757 monthly. These amounts may be increased for each spouse and dependent. There is still a significant income limitation. The above listed amounts are reduced dollar for dollar by any incomes, what-so-ever, the veteran or his/her household receives. Blinded Veterans' earnings can be reduced by the amount of unreimbursed medical expenses which the BV pays. In most years, there has been an annual Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) for BV's receiving the NSD Pension.

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 12 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 improve the BV's quality of life and 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. Initially the pilot project was held at the old VA Regional Office at Pisa Grille, Florida. It brought 11 Florida BV's together for an all day evaluation, similar to the present annual VIST review. This results of this pilot project prompted the VA and BVA to expand the project, to 10 VA stations around the US. The results of this project were compiled into a book. The BVA took the results of that project to the VA Central Office. As a result this BVA effort resulted in the establishment of the Visual Impairment Service Program in Fiscal Year 1968 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 160 VA stations, with 119 full time and 41 part time VIST Coordinator positions. The BVA has worked with Congress, the VA Central Office, and in some cases with local VA Medical facilities to secure these 160 VIST positions. Florida has 11 full time VIST Coordinators and one part time VIST. Recruitment is underway to fill the vacant VIST position in Tampa. 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. Since then the BVA has secured 31 additional BROS positions. Eight of that 31 BROS positions were added in Florida: Broward, Ft. Myers, Jacksonville, Lake City, Miami, Orlando, Tampa, and West Palm Beach. 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 were not able to go to a BRC, the BVA went to Congress to amend the law 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.).

In 2009, the BVA and PVA secured introduction in to Congress of legislation to exempt from co-payments veterans who are catastrophically disabled. Blinded Veterans and Spinal Cord Injured veterans are considered catastrophically disabled. On May 5, 2010, the President sign legislation eliminating co-payments for catastrophically disabled veterans for attendance in a Blind Rehab Center, Spinal Cord Injury center, regular medical treatment and pharmacy prescriptions. Veterans who were NSC or rated at 10% to 40% had to make those co-payments. Now these BV's are exempt. In many cases the monthly saving these BV's enjoy from this legislation would pay for a life membership in the BVA.

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% SC veterans without income restriction. FS 196.101 provides Total Homestead Tax Exemption to individuals restricted to a wheelchair or who are legally blind. For 2013, FS 196.101 has a total household income limitation of $26895 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 The BVA was formed 68 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 BV'S 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. Only a very small minority in Congress have ever 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. Use the application enclosed in the print copy of this Newsletter and JOIN THE BVA TODAY. Annual dues are only $15. Better yet, join as a Life Member (LM) or Associate Life Member (ALM), then, you won't have to pay dues ever again. Your life dues go into the LM Fund, the principal of which is never touched. The dividends and interest from that fund are apportioned to the Regional Groups according to the number of LM and ALM in the Group. LM and ALM dues run from $50 to $100 depending on your age. You may start a LM or ALM with a down payment of $25 with the balance payable over the next 2 years. The enclosed application form indicates that Life and Associate Life Memberships run from $100 for BV's age 44 and under, $88 for BV's 45 to 54, $75 - 55 to 60, $63 - 61-65, and $50 age 66 and over. We need your help to continue the work of the BVA for those of us who benefit from the services available to us and to insure that these services and benefits will continue to be available for the Blinded Veterans who come after us. . PLEASE USE THE APPLICATION AND JOIN THE BVA TODAY!

George Stocking