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Disabled Oregon veteran sues VA over plan to cut home care

Traci, Michael (center) and their son Ethen Williamson live in a house in Springfield that the VA helped outfit to accommodate Williamson's wheelchair.

COURTESY OF WILLIAMSON FAMILY

By LYNNE TERRY | The Oregonian (Tribune News Service) | Published: January 26, 2018

A Springfield, Oregon veteran with Lou Gehrig's disease who needs around-the-clock care is suing the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs over a plan to force him to move to a nursing home out of state.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Eugene, says Michael Williamson has received in-home care for nearly 17 years through a company that contracts with VA's medical facility in Roseburg, the Roseburg VA Health Care System.

The company, New Horizons, notified Williamson in November that it will no longer be able to provide services for him after Feb. 13 because it can't find caregivers, the suit says.

Instead of finding a new provider, officials at Roseburg VA Health Care System told Williamson they had no other approved caregiving agencies in the area and that he would have to move to a nursing home in San Francisco, Boise or Washington's Puget Sound, the suit says.

That's against VA regulations, said Emily Cooper, legal director for Disability Rights Oregon, the advocacy agency representing Williamson.

"People shouldn't have to go to a hospital or institution to get care," Cooper said.

The U.S. Department of Justice said in a statement Thursday that it is reviewing the case.

"The U.S. Attorney's Office is reviewing all available options to continue Mr. Williamson's in-home care," the statement read. "Mr. Williamson's care is of utmost importance. The USAO is working with counsel at Disability Rights Oregon and Veterans Affairs to explore solutions to this matter absent further litigation."

Williamson, 51, served 14 years in the U.S. Air Force. He served in Iraq in 1988 and was in Saudi Arabia before, during and after Desert Storm in the early 1990s.

Eleven years after serving in Iraq he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, ALS, a progressive neurodegenerative disease that attacks nerve cells in the brain and spinal column, taking away the ability to move, speak, eat and breathe.

He is on a ventilator and has a feeding tube for sustenance and medications. But his mind is fully intact, Cooper said.

"He's very sharp, articulate, he's a great writer, he is funny," Cooper said. "He's got a full life. It just may look different than yours and mine.

In 2001, the Veterans Administration recognized a connection between ALS and Gulf War vets, giving them full disability and survivor benefits. After his diagnosis, Williamson received 100 percent permanent and total service-connected disability benefits, the suit says.

New Horizons, which contracts with VA Roseburg Health Care System, has provided Williamson with nurse-directed care that includes caregivers who stay around-the-clock in his home. The suit does not detail how much that care costs.

If nothing happens, they won't be there this Valentine's Day to adjust his ventilator or ensure he's bathed, able to move, go to the bathroom and receive food and medications, Cooper said.

The suit asks for an injunction to maintain Williamson's current care, forcing the VA to ensure he gets the in-home care he needs.

After his diagnosis, the VA gave the family money to buy an accessible van and modify a new home so he could get around in his wheelchair, the suit says. The VA also bought him a ventilator and contracted and trained New Horizon staff to care for him.

©2018 The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.)
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