Several years ago, a chemical and biological weapons detection alert sounded in the Russell Senate Office Building. Senators, staff, and visitors in the building evacuated to the nearby Russell garage to wait for the Capitol Police to clear the building. It was then that I had the fortunate experience to meet retired Army sergeant Ted Wade and his wife, Sarah.
At that time, Ted could hardly function due to devastating injuries sustained in Iraq in 2004. While patrolling for insurgents, an improvised explosive device (IED) hit Ted's Humvee. As a result of that explosion, he suffered the loss of an arm and head trauma so severe that even some of his doctors lost hope for recovery.
Although Ted has improved since our first meeting, caring for him has become an around-the-clock job for Sarah. She manages his medications, checks his blood glucose levels, manages his special diet, administers injections of insulin and hormone replacement therapy, provides transportation, and oversees his medical care. Because of these responsibilities, Sarah does not have the time to return to school, hold full-time employment, or have a life of her own.
Ted will never be the person he was before the IED hit his convoy, but because of the unbelievable support from Sarah and the rest of his family, he has made and continues to make tremendous progress. Unfortunately, the strain and struggles the Wades have faced is not uncommon for families with loved ones who have been severely injured while serving in Afghanistan and Iraq.
What our vets needed
As Sarah can attest, these caregivers drastically change their lives to care for a loved one. As a result, it is difficult for many family caregivers to find and keep full-time employment, which limits their ability to earn an income and obtain health insurance. Ed Edmundson, for example, could no longer work and provide the full-time care that his son, Eric, needed in order to be able to continue to live at home. It was Ted and Sarah Wade and the Edmundsons who were among the first to recognize a need that the Department of Veterans Affairs could fulfill for these families. They were a driving force behind the creation of the Caregivers and Veterans Omnibus Health Services Act of 2010.
In an effort to aid families similar to the Wades and the Edmundsons, Congress passed this bill in 2010 to provide assistance to family caregivers of severely injured veterans. This law is intended to provide benefits to the caregivers such as health care, support, counseling and a stipend from VA. When writing this legislation, we were very clear as to who should qualify for this program. A veteran would qualify if he or she has: an inability to perform one or more activities of daily living; or the need for supervision or protection based on neurological symptoms or other impairment or injury.
This bill unanimously passed the Senate and the House of Representatives. I was present at the White House when President Obama signed it into law on May 5 of last year, and, with Sarah standing by his side, he said: "If you're like Sarah — and caring for a severely injured veteran from Afghanistan or Iraq — you'll receive a stipend and other assistance."
After a three-month delay, VA released its implementation plan for the Caregivers Act last month. To my great surprise and dismay, VA added stringent new eligibility rules that were not in the law passed by Congress. As the law was written, it was estimated to cover 3,500 caregivers of veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. However, if this program goes into effect with the new guidelines issued by the administration, only 850 veterans will qualify. What's worse, under the administration's implementation plan, Ted and Sarah Wade — the very ones who fought for this landmark legislation and were recognized by the president at the law's signing ceremony — might be denied benefits.
Family members of the most severely injured veterans change their lives to take care of their loved ones when they need the most support and care. Congress passed a bill to provide these caregivers with the training and counseling support necessary to help them, and the administration must do the right thing and revise the plan to ensure that caregivers for severely injured Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, like Ted Wade, are covered under this program.
Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., is the ranking member of the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs.