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WASHINGTON — Veterans Affairs officials promised Friday that traumatic brain injury victims will be covered under new caregiver benefits scheduled to start this summer, but veterans advocates remain skeptical.

“It still seems like there are so many things they don’t understand about what the care needs are for these veterans,” said Sarah Wade, the wife of an Iraq War veteran who suffered TBI in a roadside bomb blast.

In testimony before the House Veterans Affairs Committee, Veterans Health Administration Undersecretary Robert Petzel said that “large numbers of TBI patients will be eligible” when the final benefits rules go into effect later this year. He anticipates the program will launch by June, although he acknowledged the program is already well behind its original January 2011 start date.

The caregiver program, passed by Congress last year, is designed to give financial support and training tools to at-home caregivers of wounded Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. Veterans groups hailed is passage last year as a way to help both the injured troops and their families, many of whom have left their jobs to care for their loved ones full time.

But when draft regulations were released earlier this year, those same groups bristled at what they saw as narrow definitions of which troops and caregivers would be eligible.

VA officials blamed the complexity of the new program on the conflict, and said he anticipates troops who suffered varying levels of traumatic brain injury to be eligible under the rules.

“Without a doubt, our intention is that those individuals will be included,” said Deborah Amdur, chief consultant for VHA’s care management. “You will be eligible if you have an individual who needs supervision to remain at home.”

But officials from the Wounded Warrior Project noted that the regulations call for coverage of TBI victims with “clinical needs,” and they still worry that the caregiver benefits will be made available only to the most severely injured troops.

“TBI is not only the signature wound of this war, it’s the signature wound of this law,” said Ralph Ibson, national policy director for the Wounded Warrior Project. “This is not a difficult law to understand. The eligibility language is plain on its face.”

Wade, whose husband Ted now lives at home with her after two years recovering at Walter Reed, had been a driving force behind the caregivers benefits legislation. The couple appeared alongside President Barack Obama when the measure was signed into law last year, and were repeatedly referenced as a model for the new benefits.

But the Wades and Wounded Warrior Project officials say that under the regulations as currently written, they would not be eligible for the benefits because Ted’s injuries are not severe enough to require 24-hour medical supervision.

Tom Tarantino, legislative associate for the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said officials there were disappointed and dismayed when they saw the draft regulations.

His group estimated that about 3,000 caregivers would receive benefits under the original intent of the law. VA officials estimate that between 750 and 1,000 will be covered under the current rules.

Earlier this week, leaders of the Senate and House veterans affairs committees sent a letter to Obama criticizing the VA’s narrow focus in the regulations, saying they “create undue hardship for veterans and family caregivers meant to be helped by the new program.”

Petzel said the final regulations will be released in May, but he is confident that a broad range of wounded veterans — including TBI patients — will be covered.

shanel@stripes.osd.mil

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