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Witness Testimony of Hon. Sheila Jackson-Lee, a Representative in Congress from the State of Texas

Thank you, Madam Chairwoman Herseth Sandlin for convening this historic hearing. There are few if any higher obligations of the Congress, the President, and the American people than keeping faith with the men and women who have worn the uniform in service to our country.

I applaud the work of the Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity because it is charged with legislative, oversight and investigative jurisdiction over education of veterans, employment and training of veterans, vocational rehabilitation, veterans’ housing programs, and readjustment of service members to civilian life. That is the purpose of this hearing is to consider a number of legislative proposals to facilitate the readjustment of veterans to civilian life.

It is for that reason that I am delighted to be here to discuss H.R. 1240, the “Vision Impairment Specialist Training Act,” or VISTA Act of 2007. The purpose of my legislation is to help our nation’s blind and low-vision veterans by establishing a scholarship program for students seeking training in blind rehabilitation.

I am proud that the Chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee, Mr. Filner, is an original co-sponsor of this legislation, as is Mr. Michaud, the Chair of this Committee’s Subcommittee on Health; and the co-chairs of the Congressional Vision Caucus, my colleague Mr. Gene Green of Texas and Ms. Ros-Lehtinen of Florida. I am proud to report also that this legislation is strongly supported by the Blind Veterans of America, an organization chartered by Congress in 1958, and which has been for nearly 50 the only veterans service organization exclusively dedicated to serving America's blind and visually impaired veterans.

Madam Chairwoman, there are approximately 160,000 legally blind veterans in the United States, but only 35,000 are currently enrolled in Veterans Health Administration services.

In addition, it is estimated that there are over 1 million low-vision veterans in the United States, and incidences of blindness among the total veteran population of 26 million are expected to increase by about 40% over the next few years. This is because the most prevalent causes of legal blindness and low vision are age-related, and the average age of the veteran population is increasing; the current average age is about 80 years old.

Members of the armed forces are important to our nation and we show them our appreciation by taking care of them even after they have completed their service. But the fact is that there are not enough blind rehabilitation specialists to serve all legally blind and low-vision veterans in United States.

Blind rehabilitation training helps give these veterans awareness of and functioning in their surroundings and enables them to retain their independence and dignity. Veterans without these services may find it difficult to be self-sufficient, relying on others to perform certain skills or even simple tasks on their behalf.

Madam Chairwoman, Public Law 104-262, the Eligibility Reform Act 1996, requires the Department of Veterans Affairs to maintain its capacity to provide specialized rehabilitative services to disabled veterans, but it cannot do so when there are not enough specialists to address these needs.

Last December, the Veterans Programs Extension Act was passed, which included a provision by Congressman Michael Michaud to increase the number of Blind Rehabilitation Outpatient Specialists serving our nation’s veterans. However, there are currently not enough counselors certified in blind rehabilitation to provide for the growing number of blind or low-vision veterans, let alone the rest of our nation’s elderly population.

My legislation, the VISTA Act, helps to remedy this situation by directing the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to establish a scholarship program for students seeking a degree or certificate in blind rehabilitation (Vision Impairment and/or Orientation and Mobility). The availability of these scholarship opportunities will provide an incentive to students considering entry into the field.

Additionally, in exchange for the scholarship award, students are required to work for three years in a healthcare facility of the Department of Veterans Affairs, to ensure that our veterans are well cared for.

If I might, let me discuss the legislation in more detail.

H.R. 1240 mandates that the Secretary of Veterans Affairs shall provide financial assistance to students enrolled in a program of study leading to a degree or certificate in Visual Impairment and/or Orientation and Mobility at an accredited educational institution in a U.S. state or territory, provided that they agree with applicable requirements.

As I stated earlier, the purpose of the scholarship program is to increase the supply of qualified blind rehabilitation specialists for the Department of Veterans Affairs and the nation.

The legislation requires that the Secretary of Veterans Affairs shall widely publicize this scholarship program to colleges and universities across the nation, especially institutions with large numbers of Hispanic students and HBCUs. This is a particularly salutary provision because African Americans, Hispanics, and other minorities are underrepresented in the field of vision rehabilitation.

To apply and participate in the scholarship program, an applicant shall submit to the Secretary, or his designee, an application and agree to serve a 3 year period of obligated service in the Department of Veterans Affairs. The legislation requires that the Secretary shall include among the application and agreement materials a fair summary of the rights and liabilities of the applicant if accepted into the program.

When the Secretary approves of the applicant’s acceptance, the applicant shall be promptly notified and accepted into the program.

The amount of financial assistance provided for an applicant shall be the amount determined by the Secretary as being necessary to pay the tuition and fees of the applicant. If the applicant is enrolled in a dual degree or certification program, the amount awarded shall not exceed the amounts necessary for the minimum number of credit hours to achieve such dual certification or degree.

Financial assistance provided to an applicant by this scholarship program may supplement other educational assistance, as long as the total award does not exceed the tuition and fees required for an academic year.

The maximum award for any full-time student per academic year may not exceed $15,000. The maximum award for any part-time student should be determined in proportion to the amount that would be the case if the student were full-time. For any student, the total amount of assistance may not exceed $45,000.

The maximum duration for financial assistance under this program is six years.

The agreement for participation in this scholarship program shall be signed by both the Secretary and the participant. The Secretary shall agree to provide the participant with the authorized financial assistance and the participant shall agree to:

  • accept the assistance
  • maintain enrollment and attendance in the appropriate program of study
  • maintain an acceptable level of academic standing
  • serve as a full-time employee in the Department of Veterans Affairs for three years within the first six years after completing the program and receiving the degree or certificate specified

If the applicant fails to satisfy the requirements of the agreement, the applicant must repay the amount equal to the unearned portion of assistance, except in circumstances authorized by the Secretary. The Secretary shall establish procedures for determining the amount of the repayment required, as well as the circumstances under which an exception to the required repayment may be granted.

The Secretary shall prescribe regulations for the waiver or suspension of an applicant’s obligation for service or payment whenever the applicant’s noncompliance is due to circumstances beyond his or her control or it is in the best interest of the United States.

Madam Chairwoman, I should point out that an obligation to repay the Secretary under this section is a debt owed the United States. Thus, a discharge in bankruptcy does not discharge a person from a debt under this legislation if the discharge order is entered less than five years after the date of the termination of the agreement or contract.

Madam Chairwoman, every morning when I arrive at my office, I am reminded of how fortunate I am to live in a nation as great as the United States. Outside of my office there is a poster-board with the names and faces of those heroes from Houston, Texas who have lost their lives wearing the uniform of our country. We live in a nation where so many brave young men and women volunteer to the ultimate sacrifice so that their countrymen can enjoy the blessings of liberty. Now is the time to remind our heroes know they have not been, and will never be, forgotten. They deserve honor, they deserve dignity, and they deserve the best care. After all, this is the least we can do for those who have done so much for all of us.

I thank the Committee for allowing me this time to discuss H.R. 1240. I appreciate the support of the members who have co-sponsored the bill and invite all other members to join as well. I would be pleased to answer any questions you may have.

[2004 GAO Testimony Submitted by Hon. Sheila Jackson Lee:  Testimony Before the Committee on Veterans' Affairs, House of Representatives, United States Government Accountability Office, Thursday, July 22, 2004, VA Health Care: More Outpatient Rehabilitation Services for Blind Veterans Could Better, Meet Their Needs, GAO-04-996T.]