Some military families could gain, others could lose in policy changes to DOD’s special needs program
Stars and Stripes June 29, 2023
Policy changes announced last week to a Defense Department program that assists troops who have family members with special needs could result in some military families gaining services while others lose them, Pentagon officials said.
Changes to the Exceptional Family Member Program revealed Friday — more than two years after Congress mandated changes — were established so each service branch has similar standards and guidelines to track performance and improve oversight.
Previously, the military services implemented the program on their own, which has led to an uneven distribution of support, particularly when it came to resources such as access to legal support, respite hours for caregivers and relocation services. As the new policy evens out across each military service, access to some resources will change.
The Defense Department also will hire more support staff to manage the changes as they are phased in during the next 15 months.
“When we talk about that phased-in approach, it really is about ensuring that we take integral steps to not only inform families and ensure that they're aware of the policy and the totality and what they should expect from the program, but also that we work with the military services … that they're prepared for full implementation in a way that benefits families, and also has that positive impact on the mission,” said Tomeshia Barnes, associate director of the DOD’s Office of Special Needs, which manages the program.
The program is for service members who have a family member with special needs requiring specialized medical care, treatment programs or educational services. It is meant to ensure those service members receive duty assignments to locations where those special needs can be met.
Roughly 140,500 family members are enrolled in the program across the department, Barnes said.
The new policy, which will be fully implemented by September 2024, stemmed from changes included in the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal 2021, an annual bill that outlines defense priorities and spending. Congress included the changes after family members testified in February 2020 before the House Armed Services Committee subpanel on military personnel about the challenges that they have faced with the program.
Michelle Norman is a Navy spouse who became involved in the program after her daughter was born prematurely in 2003 and was diagnosed with multiple disabilities. Norman is the executive director and founder of Partners in PROMISE, a nonprofit focused on special education rights of military children. Norman testified to lawmakers about the program and said Tuesday that she’s optimistic the policy can lead to improvements.
But she said she’s also disappointed. The Defense Department’s policy is vague and leaves room for the services to interpret it differently.
“I know how much effort was put into this by so many different individuals and leaders who truly care about the program, so I can fully appreciate that,” Norman said. “For those who have followed the evolution of the EFMP program, I think that there is a sense of disappointment like there could have been more.”
Some of the specifics of the new policy include how to enroll, unenroll, coordinate assignments and monitor services available at each location. In the past, each service branch had different approaches, which often led to confusion when approving new assignments and a loss of services for families. It also made it difficult for the Pentagon to measure performance.
The new policy also forces the services to provide a reason when an assignment is declined and sets the amount of respite care that families can receive to 20 or 32 hours a month. This is support meant to allow a caregiver a break, and eligibility is based on the level of care that the family member requires.
Families in the Navy could lose some resources because the service previously allowed for 40 hours a month. Marine Corps families could gain because the service previously offered 20 hours.
However, the policy allows families to request an increase in the respite support that they are afforded.
"Service members can't focus on the mission when they have concerns about a family member's health or education needs," Gilbert Cisneros, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, said in a statement. "Enrollment in EFMP provides families access to critical services and support, no matter their service branch or location. And the department plans to continue our work to enhance EFMP to better serve our military families."
In the next year as the Pentagon implements the program changes, leaders anticipate they will need to hire roughly 99 new employees, mostly to increase the number of case managers working directly with families, Barnes said. They’ll also be reaching out to families through many different lines of communication, so everyone knows what to expect before their support resources change.
Norman said she is glad to see a policy that requires base program offices to formally hand off families to each other when a service member moves to a new base. However, the policy does not clearly state who is responsible for initiating this process, Norman said.
“Families have always mentioned in our annual survey, the delays in receiving medical care and the delays in receiving their special-ed services,” she said. “It will help families, so they don’t feel like they’re all alone and struggling to figure out who the right point of contact is at the next installation.”
The new policy also orders each service branch to create a centralized program headquarters and an office at each military base with case managers to help enrolled families develop a family services plan.
Barnes acknowledged there is room to clarify and tighten the new policy and she said the Pentagon will continue to update and modify it as needed. One thing missing from the policy is a family member advisory panel that was required by the NDAA. Planning for that is ongoing, and the panel will be part of future improvements to the program, she said.
“There are going to be continual enhancements and revisions that you'll see within future revisions to the [policy] and so we are actively working to continue enhancing and improving the program. There actually will be more enhancements coming very soon,” Barnes said.