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Senate bill would expand benefits for caregivers

Apr. 10, 2014 - 11:34AM   |  
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Responding to a Rand Corp. report issued last week on challenges facing those who care for ill or injured veterans, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., on Thursday introduced a bill that would increase federal support for this largely invisible group.

More than 5 million Americans provide care and support for veterans, with 1 million helping ill or injured Iraq and Afghanistan war-era veterans. According to the study, many often do so at great personal sacrifice, experiencing social isolation, income loss and poor health.

Roughly a third do not have health insurance, 62 percent face financial strain as a result of their circumstances, 28 percent left jobs to care for a veteran and nearly 40 percent meet the criteria for symptoms of depression — more than double that of civilian caregivers.

“Our caregivers work extremely hard without any recognition and rarely ask for anything for themselves, a lot like the service member and veterans themselves, who say they are just doing their jobs,” Murray said during a speech on the Senate floor.

The Military and Veteran Caregiver Services Improvement Act, which Murray dubbed the “Hidden Heroes Act” after the Rand report, would broaden the Veterans Affairs Department caregiver program, removing restrictions on who is considered a caregiver for benefit purposes and increasing support for those caring for people with mental health issues.

It would make tax-exempt the Defense Department benefit known as Special Compensation for Assistance with Activities of Daily Living and would expand eligibility for the program by increasing support of those caring for individuals with mental health conditions and/or traumatic brain injury.

It also would remove the time restrictions for veterans eligible for the Post-9/11 GI Bill to transfer their benefits.

“Injured veterans should not be penalized because their injury occurred early in their service,” Murray said.

Murray said she found inspiration for the proposed legislation in the Rand study as well as her parents’ own story. Murray’s father, a World War II veteran, was cared for by her mother after he developed multiple sclerosis. At the same time, mother Beverly Johns raised seven children and supported the family.

According to the study, post-9/11 military and veterans caregivers save taxpayers more than $3 billion a year by offsetting the cost of home health care and medical aides.

The Rand study, written by researchers Rajeev Ramchand, Terri Tanielian and David Adamson, was commissioned by the Elizabeth Dole Foundation, after its founder, former Transportation Secretary and Sen. Elizabeth Dole became a caregiver herself, helping husband and World War II veteran Sen. Robert Dole during an 11-month hospitalization and subsequent care.

When the Doles began hosting injured and ill troops and their caregivers for dinners in their Washington, D.C., home after Robert Dole’s hospitalization, Elizabeth Dole felt compelled to do more.

“Once these families are home, the challenges increase tremendously,” Dole said last week at an event to unveil the study.

The White House on Friday will announce more initiatives for military and veterans caregivers under the Joining Forces program. First lady Michelle Obama and Jill Biden, along with Dole and former first lady Rosalynn Carter, founder of the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregiving, have invited caregivers to the East Wing for the event.

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