Caregivers of wounded veterans could get federal aid

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Momentum is growing on Capitol Hill to provide additional and consistent support to primary caregivers of seriously injured service members from Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom.

On April 2, Sen. Daniel K. Akaka, D-Hawaii, chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee, and ranking member Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., introduced Senate Bill 801, the Family Caregiver Program Act of 2009.

The Department of Veterans Affairs "motto is to 'care for him who shall have borne the battle,' " Mr. Akaka said. "VA must recognize and support these family caregivers for what they are: partners in a shared mission."

The bill, which could come to a Senate vote soon, would provide VA training and certification to caregivers and personal care attendants; a living stipend; access to health care services, including mental health counseling; and new travel benefits.

In the House, HR 3155, the Caregiver Assistance and Resource Enhancement Act introduced by Rep. Michael Michaud, D-Maine, would provide caregivers with training support and medical care.

"Behind every wounded warrior is a wounded family," Barbara Cohoon of the National Military Family Association said in an interview.

Ralph Ibson, senior fellow for the Wounded Warrior Project, a Jacksonville, Fla.-based nonprofit advocate for injured service members, said the project views the Senate bill as comprehensive and more encompassing than the proposed House legislation.

The sacrifices of caregivers need to be supported, he said. "This is the story in the shadows that desperately needs to be told."

Helping to tell that story this summer at a House subcommittee hearing on a previous bill was Anna Frese, whose brother, retired Army Sgt. Eric Edmundson of North Carolina, was injured by a roadside bomb in Iraq on Oct. 2, 2005. He had a traumatic brain injury, shrapnel wounds to his abdomen and fractures in two vertebrae. While awaiting transport to Germany, Mr. Edmundson went into cardiac arrest. Medical workers revived him, but his brain had been deprived of oxygen.

Now 28, he struggles to walk, talk, eat and drink. His father, Edgar Edmundson, 54, his primary caregiver, quit his job as a warehouse supervisor to attend to his son. He has used up his retirement funds and savings and no longer has health insurance.

"While the decision to care for a loved one may come easily ... family caregiving can take an extraordinary toll -- emotionally, physically, spiritually and economically," Ms. Frese said.

Some components of the bills already exist in the VA's programs but are inconsistently provided across the country, Mr. Ibson noted. "What this [Senate] bill does is move the VA from a piecemeal situation ... to a more systematic framework."

Mr. Ibson said current options for veterans who need long-term care range from expensive institutionalization -- which costs the VA an estimated $296,000 to $320,000 per veteran per year -- to having the VA provide services in the home through contract employees.

But, he said, many family members want to be the primary caregivers "and the family finds itself in a self-sacrificing mode, bearing an enormous challenge, multiple burdens, risk of exhaustion physically, psychologically, emotionally and economically and suffering insidiously in terms of their own physical health."

Moreover, noted Mike Turner, the Wounded Warrior Project's chief of congressional affairs, the evidence is compelling that the quality and speed of recovery is positively affected by the care of a loved one at home.

Over the next four days, more than two dozen families involved in caregiving will meet with lawmakers in Washington, D.C., to push for passage of a caregiver bill.


Michael A. Fuoco can be reached at mfuoco@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1968.


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