Congressional Inaction Threatens Program for Brain-Damaged Vets. Tune in for the Live Broadcast Show on The American Heroes Network for their new episode “Wounded Warriors Project : Call to Congress to Extend VA’s TBI Assisted Living Pilot Program” Tuesday July 22nd 8am Pacific Time.
WASHINGTON-The Department of Veterans Affairs has begun ousting dozens of brain-damaged veterans from special therapeutic group homes, setting off a scramble for housing and care.
In recent weeks, VA case workers have warned 53 veterans they’ll have to leave the privately run homes by Sept. 15, according to the agency. Ten have already been discharged from the care facilities and sent to nursing homes, state veterans homes or to live with family members. Dozens of other veterans are now in a state of limbo about whether they’ll be able to remain in the rehab facilities for more than a few months.
The VA says it has no choice but to discharge the residents. Despite pressure from veterans, their families and service organizations, Congress hasn’t extended the legal authority for the rehabilitation program, which expires Oct. 6.
“The failure to extend this successful pilot [program] would close a door to recently injured individuals who need these services and risk having to transfer wounded veterans to more costly and inappropriate environments of care,” the Wounded Warrior Project, the Veterans of Foreign Wars and 11 other veterans groups wrote to lawmakers in a joint letter this month.
Lawmakers from both parties say they support renewing the program. The five-year pilot was designed to test whether veterans with traumatic brain injuries-the kinds of wound that became a signature of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts-improve faster with intensive therapy in a community-based home than at a hospital or rest home.
“It’s shortsighted to let it expire, leaving veterans out in the cold with no similar options,” Sen. Cory Booker (D., N.J.) said in a written statement. Rep. Bill Cassidy (R., La.), who has sponsored a bill renewing the program, said “I’m optimistic we’ll pass it on the House side.”
Such measures have been introduced in both chambers, but with Congress deadlocked on a variety of issues, none haven’t made it into law.Â VA officials say they can’t wait until the last minute to begin discharging patients.
The group-home program featured in a Feb. 20 front-page article in The Wall Street Journal focused on the life of former Marine Cpl. Justin Bunce, who suffered brain damage in a blast in Iraq in 2004 and later lost further brain function in a car accident. Cpl. Bunce lives in a VA-funded group home in Germantown, Md., run by NeuroRestorative, a unit of the Mentor Network, a Boston-based health-care and human-services company.
NeuroRestorative expects that 30 of the 54 veterans in its facilities in 14 states will have to move out within the next two months.
For the moment, the VA isn’t discharging the 50 Iraq and Afghanistan vets now living in the group homes, including Mr. Bunce. The agency is using authority under a separate law to continue funding for the treatment for brain-injured veterans of the post-Sept. 11 wars.Â Senior VA officials are debating how long that reprieve can last. “We’re awaiting the decision as to a way forward for these particular vets,” said Sharon Benedict, the program’s manager at the VA.
The brain-injury rehabilitation facilities resemble a home or apartment complex only with the addition of full-time attendants and a rigorous schedule of speech, physical, cognitive and occupational therapies. Residents have trainers to help them relearn lost life skills, such as shopping, eating in public and social interaction. They receive medical treatment at local VA medical centers.
“I’m doing great, and they’re going to yank it from me,” said Don Rohm, who has been told he must leave one such VA-funded residence in Egg Harbor Township, N.J. “God only knows what’s going to happen.”
Mr. Rohm weeps when he talks about facing life outside of the assisted-living facility. “It’s only a matter of time before I end up in jail or dead,” he said.Â Mr. Rohm, 53 years old, suffered brain damage when he was pushed down a marble staircase while stationed with the Army in Germany in 1981. In 1992, while working as a National Guard firefighter, he was hit in the chin by a heavy fire-hose nozzle. A fall from a ladder in 1995 and a car accident four years later-caused by seizures related to his brain injuries, according to his caregivers-worsened his condition. Â His injuries cost him his ability to perform basic arithmetic. At the VA-funded facility, he is working on his nine-times multiplication tables.
Congress created the trial program seeking more effective ways to rehabilitate veterans who suffered intractable brain injuries. Among the veterans living in the Germantown home are a pilot left paralyzed and barely able to speak by a helicopter crash in Afghanistan; a veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder who survived a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head; and a National Guardsman who suffered several close calls in mortar attacks in Iraq.
The VA has yet to complete a full assessment of the program’s effectiveness, but says anecdotal evidence has been promising. “All indications are that the satisfaction is high among the veterans with the services they’re receiving, and they seem to be making gains,” said Ms. Benedict.