Congress boosts assistance to veterans, their caregivers

McClatchy NewspapersApril 23, 2010 

WASHINGTON — Military veterans and their families received help from Congress on several fronts this week.

In-home caregivers of severely wounded Iraq and Afghanistan veterans will receive a government stipend and other aid as a result of a bill passed Thursday by the House of Representatives and Senate.

Meanwhile, women would have improved maternity benefits under the legislation, rural and homeless vets would have more health care options and former and current troops with mental health problems would have more access to treatment.

The legislation "represents the voices of veterans and their advocates from around the country," said Democratic Rep. Bob Filner of California, the chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee. "Now is the time to address the emerging needs, as well as those needs that have lingered for years."

The Caregivers and Veterans Omnibus Health Services Act attempts to address the struggles of caregivers who are forced to quit their jobs and often lose their health insurance to care for wounded family members.

Caregivers of veterans from all eras would receive training, counseling, mental health services and 30 days a year of in-home replacement care. Health insurance would be available if they have none.

Besides the stipend, which would be based on hours and the degree of care provided, caregivers for some wounded Iraq and Afghanistan vets would be eligible for lodging and assistance when accompanying them on medical visits.

More support has long been a priority among activists for veterans' issues.

"Passage of this bill sends a clear message that our government honors the service and sacrifice of our nation's veterans, supports family caregivers of severely wounded and seeks to end the tragedy of homeless veterans," Roberto Barrera, the national commander of Disabled American Veterans, said in a statement.

He said it also "honors the service of our nation's women veterans who serve side-by-side their male counterparts on the field of battle."

Among the new services for women would be up to seven days of post-delivery health care for newborns, including a greater emphasis on privacy in the male-dominated VA hospital system. The bill also offers training for mental health workers who treat women for sexual trauma.

The mental health services in the legislation include an emphasis on the rising number of cases of post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury among returning troops.

"Our nation ... made a promise that we would provide the care and treatment they deserve," said Republican Sen. Kit Bond of Missouri, a co-author of the mental health provisions. "This action is an important step."

Bond worked with Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer of California and independent Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut on the PTSD and traumatic brain injury provisions. They would give active-duty troops suffering from either access to Vet Centers, which are VA-run, community-based counseling centers.

More than 600,000 troops have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan suffering from PTSD, traumatic brain injury or both, according to a Rand Corp. study. In a statement, the three senators said the response by the government "has been inadequate."

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