Bill to aid caregivers of veterans

Posted July 27, 2009, at 10:55 p.m.

The House of Representatives passed a bill on Monday sponsored by U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, D-Maine, that would create a new program aimed at helping family members who care for an injured or disabled veteran at home.

The bill, which now goes to the Senate for consideration, also would authorize monthly stipends for individuals caring for severely injured veterans of the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan who would otherwise be forced to live in a hospital or institution.

The legislation directs the Department of Veterans Affairs to establish a new “caregiver program” that will offer educational sessions, counseling and respite care to family members or other personal caregivers selected by the veteran.

Those general services would be made available to those caring for any veterans whose injuries or disabilities are linked to their military service, regardless of when they served.

The other major provision of the bill seeks to compensate family members who have made significant sacrifices — such as leaving work or school — in order to care for a veteran severely wounded in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Although the VA will determine the definition of a “severely injured” veteran, the bill generally identifies them as individuals unable to carry out the basic activities of daily life who, without care at home, would have to be institutionalized. In addition to the stipend, those caregivers could also receive travel reimbursement for taking the veteran to doctor’s appointments.

Michaud, who is chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Health Subcommittee, said he introduced the bill after holding a hearing in June during which people testified about the financial and emotional challenges that sometimes come with caring for an injured loved one.

“If you look at the stress that it causes to a family, it’s just dramatic,” Michaud, who represents the 2nd District, said in an interview.

In some cases, caregivers have decided to stop working in order to stay at home by their family member’s side, he said.

“I felt strongly that we ought to do something to help the caregivers,” Michaud said.

During House debate on Monday, lawmakers pointed out that dramatic improvements in body armor and conflict-zone medical treatment mean that more soldiers are surviving serious battlefield injuries. But that also means more soldiers return home needing assistance or, in some cases, around-the-clock care.

Lawmakers said the federal government needs to do more to help facilitate home-based care for injured family members.

“For too long, we have not provided them with the resources they need,” U.S. Rep. Debbie Halvorson, D-Texas, said of caregivers.

Michaud pointed out that the VA does not track the number of veterans who are under the care of a family member. In a 2007 survey of more than 1,700 injured Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, the Dole-Shalala Commission found 21 percent of active duty personnel, 15 percent of the reserve personnel and 24 percent of retired or separated veterans reported that friends or family had given up a job to care for them.

The bill, H.R. 3155, would require the VA to conduct a survey of caregivers at least every three years to identify potential gaps and to improve services.

kmiller@bangordailynews.net

623-0024

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