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Give vets’ caregivers the relief Congress promised

Post by Cheryl Tucker on March 7, 2011 at 7:36 pm |
March 7, 2011 5:09 pm

This editorial will appear in Tuesday’s print edition.

When Congress passed legislation last year to pay family caregivers of veterans wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan, the program was supposed to be up and running by now.

But the Department of Veterans Affairs is not only tardy implementing the Caregivers and Veterans Omnibus Health Services Act signed by President Obama in March 2010, it is also excluding many wounded veterans’ families that Congress wanted to help with the legislation.

Washington Sen. Patty Murray, who chairs the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, says Congress wanted the law to help at least 3,500 caregivers of severely wounded veterans, at a cost of $1.7 billion over five years. But the VA plans to only serve 840 and has only set aside a fraction of the funding authorized for the caregiver program. That’s “unacceptable,” Murray says.

We agree. Veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are coming home with traumatic brain injuries and other wounds that would have killed soldiers in earlier wars. And many of them can’t live on their own and require almost round-the-clock care that would be extremely costly if done in an institutional setting or nursing home.

One way to decrease the cost of care is for family members to provide it at home. And many loved ones – mostly parents and spouses – have accepted that challenge, often giving up their own jobs and health benefits to care for a wounded veterans. They’re the caregivers the legislation was targeted at helping, by providing a monthly stipend, health care coverage and travel expenses when accompanying the veteran undergoing treatment.

Murray and other members of Congress who supported the bill figured that these kinds of benefits would make it feasible for more family members to take care of wounded veterans, thus decreasing costs by avoiding institutionalization.

The VA got its marching orders from Congress, and has fallen down on the job. Too much of the burden of these two wars has been borne by the military and their families, and the caregiver legislation was meant to ease that burden in a small way. Murray is right to use her powerful position as chair of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee to keep the pressure on the VA to carry out Congress’ intent.

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