(Stars and Stripes)

WASHINGTON — Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals are undertaking a new effort focused on assuring family members and loved ones caring for veterans are included in treatment, a practice already happening at some facilities but isn’t standard policy yet.

The initiative, which launched Friday, has medical providers at a handful of VA centers across the country reaching out to veterans to determine whether they want their caregiver in the room during treatment. On paper, the caregiver would then be involved in the entire care process, including treatment planning with doctors.

“They [caregivers] are the first line of defense against the worst of all possible outcomes — suicides,” said Elizabeth Dole, a former Republican senator from North Carolina and secretary of labor and transportation. “These heroes provide care that is extensive, intimate and around the clock.”

The new effort, kicking off in three VA regions, was spurred by the Elizabeth Dole Foundation, an advocacy group for the 5.5. million spouses, parents, family members and friends who take care of injured veterans at home.

“It’s about including the caregiver as a true partner. We know the veteran in our clinics but we don’t know what’s happening the other 23 hours of the day,” said Lisa Pape, deputy chief officer for patient care services at VA. “That caregiver is experiencing that life journey. And they can fill in the pieces and paint the picture that we’re not able to see so we want to include them.”

Pape said caregivers are involved in the treatment of veterans at VA medical facilities, but it is not standard practice and too many caregivers have hit roadblocks while trying to accompany patients they care for during treatment or while trying to talk to doctors. While there’s a trial period at a handful of hospitals in the northwest and Ohio, the VA hopes a full integration in about two years.

The VA cites data that one-quarter of caregivers have difficulty coordinating care with health care providers. However, the 2009 National Alliance for Caregiving and American Association study did not exclusively analyze VA patients. Twitter: @StevenBeynon

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