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OPINION

End the wait for pre-9/11 vets and their family caregivers

By RANDY REESE | Special to Stars and Stripes | Published: November 21, 2019

Fifty years ago, 21-year-old Army infantryman Dennis Joyner was on patrol in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta when he stepped on a landmine, losing both of his legs and one arm, forever changing his life. With resilience and determination, Dennis was able to recover and build a meaningful life, with a loving family and a successful career, but he didn’t do it alone.

For the past 38 years, Dennis’ wife Donna has been by his side, supporting and caring for him, a role that has become a full-time job as his condition worsened. Today he relies on Donna more than ever, but it becomes increasingly difficult for both of them as they grow older. Donna worries whether she will be able to continue giving Dennis the care he needs without support. Dennis worries about how she will manage on her own once he is gone, since Donna long ago gave up her career to concentrate on caring for him.

Recognizing the challenges family caregivers face, as well as the valuable service they provide to seriously disabled veterans, Congress in 2010 passed historic legislation to provide comprehensive caregiver support to seriously injured veterans and their caregivers. The law provided caregivers of severely injured veterans a higher level of benefits and assistance from the Department of Veterans Affairs, including training, case management, health insurance and a modest stipend. Enactment of the comprehensive caregiver program was recognition of the increasingly critical role family caregivers play in the recovery of severely injured veterans. Moreover, family caregivers save taxpayers millions of dollars each year by preventing or delaying the need to place severely disabled veterans into VA long term care facilities.

Unfortunately, there was a catch: Due to budgetary concerns at the time the law was only made available for veterans who served on or after Sept. 11, 2001. As a result, Dennis and Donna — and thousands more like them — were left behind.

All that was supposed to have changed this fall thanks to a provision in the VA Mission Act, legislation passed by Congress last year. VA was given 16 months to update its IT systems in order to manage a larger workload, and was required to certify it was ready by Oct. 1, 2019, at which time the program would be extended to Vietnam, Korean and World War II veterans and their caregivers. However, as has occurred far too often in recent years, VA failed to meet its deadline and is using it as an excuse to delay the expansion for thousands of aging veterans and their family caregivers until at least late next year — perhaps even longer. This is simply unacceptable.

For Dennis and other severely injured veterans like him, there is deep disappointment that they and their loved ones must continue waiting for VA to provide them access to the full array of caregiver services and support that have been provided to post-9/11 veterans and their caregivers for almost a decade. Yet despite the clear congressional mandate, VA has not even committed to a new start date for the caregiver expansion, raising questions about whether this is even a priority for the Department.

Enough is enough. It’s time for Congress to step in and end the wait. VA continues to operate and administer the caregiver program for thousands of pre-9/11 veterans using existing IT systems and still continues accepting new applications from them. Compared to other IT challenges VA has faced, there is no good excuse why VA was unable to accomplish this over the past year and a half. It has become clear that leaving the starting date of the caregiver expansion up to the discretion of the VA secretary is no longer an option.

Congress needs to step in and amend the caregiver law to establish a date at which time VA must begin accepting and processing applications from pre-9/11 veterans and caregivers. If VA is still unable to launch additional IT capability to manage new enrollees by then, it can and must find ways to work around those technological limitations on a temporary basis until upgrades are completed. That is what was done to meet the implementation schedule of the exponentially larger Veterans Community Care Program this past June, a law that affected millions of veterans. It’s clear that the VA can solve IT challenges when it is a priority.

For decades, family caregivers have made all the difference for tens of thousands of severely injured and disabled veterans from World War II, and the Korean and Vietnam wars all without the full support and recognition of their service and sacrifice. Caregiving becomes significantly harder with age; many family caregivers don’t know how much longer they can continue without the kind of support offered by VA’s comprehensive caregiver program. It’s time to expand the caregiver assistance program and end their wait.

Randy Reese, a combat veteran of the Persian Gulf War and Maryland resident, is executive director of Disabled American Veterans’ Washington Headquarters.

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