I’m in a bat­tle to sup­port my hus­band

VA red tape puts vet­eran care­givers on front lines

USA TODAY US Edition - - NEWS | OPINION - Sarah Ver­ardo Sarah Ver­ardo is chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer of The In­de­pen­dence Fund, an ad­vo­cate for vet­er­ans and care­givers.

Eight years ago, my hus­band stepped on an im­pro­vised ex­plo­sive de­vice in Afghanistan. He lost his left leg and much of his left arm, and he barely sur­vived.

Mike’s war was fi­nally over. But mine would be fought on the home front. I was go­ing to have to bat­tle for him.

Some­times that bat­tle takes place in the hospi­tal, as I help my hus­band through an­other surgery — 119 and count­ing. Some­times it’s in our home, as I try to jug­gle three young kids, a plumb­ing is­sue and a health care bill, all while try­ing not to burn din­ner.

Care­givers like me are sup­port­ing cat­a­stroph­i­cally wounded vet­er­ans all over the coun­try. Too of­ten, we’re car­ry­ing out that mis­sion alone, with in­suf­fi­cient help from the very gov­ern­ment that sent our hus­bands, wives, sons and daugh­ters off to war. My hus­band proudly vol­un­teered to serve, but never did we think that the great­est fight would oc­cur once he came home.

As many as 5.5 mil­lion care­givers strug­gle to care for dis­abled vet­er­ans like my hus­band. These wounded war­riors, es­pe­cially the cat­a­stroph­i­cally dis­abled, need round-the-clock as­sis­tance as they have a hard time com­plet­ing daily tasks, like go­ing to the bath­room or get­ting out of bed.

In our case, my hus­band needs as­sis­tance in ev­ery­thing from dress­ing, to get­ting cleaned and ready, to plan­ning the day. Every day, I am con­stantly think­ing for two peo­ple.

Cat­a­stroph­i­cally wounded vets also re­quire lots of med­i­cal care. In ad­di­tion to his surg­eries, my hus­band has gone through years of speech, vis­ual, phys­i­cal and oc­cu­pa­tional ther­apy.

The De­part­ment of Vet­er­ans Af­fairs of­fers care­givers sup­port for co­or­di­nat­ing these ser­vices as well as a stipend. Care­givers re­ceive $7,800 to $30,000 in any given year. To cal­cu­late stipends, the VA looks at a typ­i­cal home health aide’s hourly wage in a vet­eran’s lo­ca­tion, as well as the num­ber of needed hours of care, cap­ping it at 40 per week.

That’s al­most in­sult­ing. I am a care­giver every se­cond of every day. One- fifth of care­givers re­port car­ing for their vet­er­ans 80 hours a week.

Se­cur­ing care­giver sta­tus can be a night­mare. VA guide­lines dic­tate that the max­i­mum wait for ap­proval should be 45 days. But more than half of vet­eran care­givers wait three to six months. One West Vir­ginia cou­ple waited al­most three years for ap­proval.

The VA has also been known to drop care­givers without ex­pla­na­tion. Be­tween 2014 and 2017, the Seat­tle and South Texas VAs cut the num­ber of rec­og­nized care­givers by al­most 50 per­cent. Port­land, Ore­gon, made a 66 per­cent cut. The Charleston, South Carolina, VA cut the of­fi­cial care­giver count by 94 per­cent — from about 200 to 11.

For­tu­nately, of­fi­cials are be­gin­ning to take ac­tion. As part of the re­cently passed VA MIS­SION Act, Congress will ex­pand care­giver sup­port to all vet­er­ans — not just those in­jured af­ter 9/11.

But there’s more to be done. The VA must ap­prove ap­pli­ca­tions for care­giver sta­tus more quickly and bet­ter tai­lor its re­sources to the need­i­est fam­i­lies.

One con­crete thing the VA can do is give fam­ily mem­bers of cat­a­stroph­i­cally wounded vet­er­ans a per­ma­nent care­giver des­ig­na­tion. To­day, in or­der to main­tain care­giver sta­tus, I am reeval­u­ated an­nu­ally to make sure that Mike still has his in­juries and still re­quires a care­giver — as though am­pu­tated limbs could some­how grow back.

Also, every three months, in the midst of an al­ready hec­tic life, I have to check in with my care­giver co­or­di­na­tor or risk be­ing dropped from the pro­gram. Any ca­sual ob­server can see that my bat­tle is life­long. The VA shouldn’t need check-ins to make sure of that.

There’s a role for the av­er­age civil­ian, too. My ad­vice? Don’t ask how you can help — just do it. Help with trans­port for vet­er­ans, bring over a home­cooked meal, or drop off ba­sic es­sen­tials — care­givers are in sur­vival mode, and re­ceiv­ing help without hav­ing to ask for it is the big­gest gift.

My hus­band paid a huge price in ser­vice of his coun­try. It is the honor of my life­time to take care of him. But the care­givers now wag­ing the war at home must be re­mem­bered, too.

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