Caregivers and Veterans Omnibus Health Services Act of 2009
Opening Floor Speech by Senator Daniel K. Akaka
Mr. President, as chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs, I had the honor of speaking at the World War II Memorial this past Veterans Day. As I stood there remembering my own comrades and their families, I thought of what the brave men and women in the service give up every day so we can enjoy the freedoms that come with American citizenship.
It is in that spirit that I urge this body to pass S. 1963, the Caregivers and Veterans Omnibus Health Services Act of 2009 without further delay.
The Nation's young veterans coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan have faced a new and terrifying kind of warfare, characterized by improvised explosive devices, sniper fire, and counterinsurgencies. Military medicine, fortunately, is saving more of these young servicemembers' lives than ever before.
In World War II, 30 percent of Americans injured in combat died. In Vietnam, 24 percent died. In the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, about 10 percent of those injured have died.
As more of the catastrophically disabled are surviving to return home, more will require a lifetime of care. With our decision on S. 1963, we decide whether that care will be in their homes with the help of their family members or in institutions. If we want that care to be in the home, we need to help the families shoulder the burden of providing it.
During the prior administration, the President's Commission on Care for America's Returning Wounded Warriors--known as the Dole-Shalala Commission--found that 21 percent of Active Duty, 15 percent of Reserves, and 24 percent of retired or separated servicemembers who served in the Iraq or Afghanistan conflicts said friends or family members gave up a job to be with them or to act as their caregiver. By giving up a job, caregivers often give up health insurance, when they need it the most.
Studies also show family caregivers experience an increased likelihood of stress, depression, and mortality, compared to their noncaregiving peers.
Without a job, without health insurance, and in very stressful situations, family caregivers have worked to fulfill the Nation's obligation to care for its wounded warriors.
S. 1963 would give these caregivers health care, counseling, support, and a living stipend. The bill would provide caregivers with a stipend equal to what a home health agency would pay an employee to provide similar services . It would give the caregivers health care and make mental health services available to them. The bill also provides for respite care so caregivers can return to care for these veterans with renewed vigor and energy. It lets these young veterans return to their families and not to a nursing home.
While the caregiver program in this legislation will be limited at first to the veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, other provisions of the bill improve health care for all veterans .
There are provisions which make health care quality a priority, strengthen the credentialing and privileging requirements of VA health care providers, and require the VA to better oversee the quality of care provided in individual VA hospitals and clinics.
The bill will also improve care for homeless veterans, women veterans, veterans who live in rural areas, and veterans who suffer from mental illness.
About 131,000 veterans are homeless. S. 1963 would help these veterans obtain housing, pension benefits, and other supportive services . It would provide financial assistance to organizations that help homeless veterans .
Seventeen percent of servicemembers are now women. This legislation contains a number of provisions which are designed to improve the care and services provided to women veterans .
It would provide for the training of mental health professionals in the treatment of military sexual trauma and provide care for the newborn children of servicewomen. It would give women veterans a quality of care they have earned through their service to this country.
The bill also provides new assistance to veterans who live in rural areas. According to the VA, of the 8 million veterans enrolled in VA health care, about 3 million live in rural areas. This legislation would bring more services into rural communities through telemedicine and increased recruitment and retention incentives for health care providers. It also would increase the VA's ability to use volunteers at vet centers and create centers of excellence for rural health .
Finally, S. 1963 addresses the signature injuries of this war--PTSD and traumatic brain injury. According to a recent RAND report, one-third of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan will develop post-traumatic stress disorder. Countless others will suffer from traumatic brain injury and face significant problems in readjusting to life at home. Many studies have shown the importance of early intervention to the effective treatment of these invisible wounds.
This legislation contains provisions that allow Active-Duty military to seek mental health services at vet centers and increase access to care for veterans with traumatic brain injury.
Before concluding, I wish to share one of the many stories I have heard as I have worked to move this legislation through the Senate.
SGT Ted Wade sustained a severe brain injury after his humvee was hit by an improvised explosive device in Iraq. His right arm was completely severed above the elbow, and he also suffered a fractured leg, broken right foot, and visual impairment, among other injuries.
His wife Sarah Wade became his caregiver and a dedicated advocate for her husband, as well as for others who are providing caregiver services .
In testimony before the House Veterans' Affairs Committee earlier this year, Ms. Wade made the point that:
Young veterans with catastrophic injuries need support that will be around as long as the injuries they sustained in service to their country. Just like servicemembers need a team in the military to accomplish the mission, they need a team at home for the longer war.
I agree completely with that view. Veterans need all the support we can provide. We, as a country, can give them options that veterans of my generation never had. We can give them the option to really come home.
To those who are concerned about the cost of this legislation, I say we cannot now turn our back on the obligation to care for those who fought in the current wars. When we as a body vote to send American troops to war, we have promised to care for them when they return.
I firmly believe the cost of veterans benefits and services is a true cost of war and must be treated as such.
I ask that our colleagues accept no more delays and act on this important legislation.
Mr. President, I reserve the remainder of my time and yield the floor.
To view entire floor debate, please clink on LINK http://www.congress.gov/cgi-lis/query/D?r111:2:./temp/~r111oXxUUO::
November 19, 2009