Two senators are pressing defense officials on continued concerns about housing for military families with disability-related needs.

They want to know, for example, how many military families have had to pay out of pocket for changes to their on-base housing — such as drop-down rails or ramps — in the past 10 years, and how many families have had to pay to undo the changes when they moved out of their homes.

“There is a clear need for additional actions by DoD, as well as oversight from Congress, in order to address concerns about the [Exceptional Family Member Program] raised by residents, surveys, Government Accountability Office reports, and congressional investigations and testimony,” wrote Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Thom Tillis, R-N.C., in their Oct. 5 letter addressed to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin. Warren chairs the Senate Armed Services personnel subcommittee.

DoD’s Exceptional Family Member Program is designed to provide support to military families with a physical, emotional, developmental or intellectual disorder requiring specialized services. According to DoD, as of 2022, about 110,000 active duty members were in the program, which is mandatory for active duty personnel who have a family member with special medical or educational needs.

Military families have raised a variety of concerns about different aspects of EFMP over the years. In response, DoD took steps this year to standardize policies related to identification and enrollment in EFMP, assignment coordination, support for the families, disenrollment and respite care.

The senators’ questions are specifically about housing, following up on information they received from DoD last year, such as the availability and tracking of housing that complies with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Defense officials didn’t respond to Military Times’ queries, saying they will respond directly to the senators, who have given them until Oct. 19 to provide the requested information.

According to a small, online survey by the Military Housing Advocacy Network, about 20% of respondents said they were forced to use their own money to pay for necessary ADA accommodations at their on-base housing, such as drop-down rails and ramps.

These problems were confirmed by DoD in its 2022 response. Tenants at several Army bases were required to pay for ADA accommodations, but not Navy and Marine Corps families. The Air Force didn’t collect the information. Without it, the Air Force can’t adequately oversee its EFMP and whether its providing comprehensive support, the senators said.

Some EFMP families have said the “outrageous” housing process requires an excessive amount of paperwork requiring “an uncomfortable amount of information” about their health status to get assigned to an ADA-compliant home. DoD didn’t respond to the senators’ previous questions about these concerns, and the senators are pressing for more information on what DoD is doing to protect families’ privacy.

The senators ask for specifics on a number of issues, such as:

  • Housing waitlists for EFMP families;
  • The number of ADA-compliant homes available at each installation;
  • How many complaints have been received from EFMP families related to housing;
  • What penalties housing companies face for not providing ADA-compliant housing; and
  • How many penalties DoD has imposed over the past five years.

According to the department’s 2022 response, while privatized housing companies maintain waitlists of families who need accessible housing, some of the Army and Marine Corps’ on-base housing offices said they don’t have access to them. The Air Force said 28 out of 69 installations either didn’t maintain waitlists or the information was not available.

DoD must centralize and standardize housing waitlists and wait times to ensure military families can move in a timely manner and get appropriate housing, and that privatized housing companies are complying with disability laws, the senators wrote.

There are installations where the average amount of time a family spends on a waitlist isn’t tracked at all, but the information that is reported “is disturbing,” senators said. More than 10 bases reported wait times of more than 90 days in 2020. One Army base reported wait times had gotten worse, with an average of nine to 12 months in 2020, compared to two to six months in 2018.

DoD must accurately track the availability of ADA-compliant housing and any complaints related to it, the senators said. Even the services that do collect the number of requests for ADA housing don’t do it consistently. The Army and the Air Force EFMP offices don’t track request and complaint information at all. The Navy and Marine Corps EFMP offices do collect requests, but not complaints.

“The incremental improvements and continued oversight challenges make the lives of service members and their families difficult and raise questions about morale and readiness which also impact retention,” the senators wrote.

Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.

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