Veterans Caregiver Program Needs an Overhaul

In June 2007, Staff Sergeant Matt Lammers found himself too close to an explosion. It occurred during his second deployment in Iraq.

As a result, he lost his left arm. He also lost his right leg above the knee. And his left leg above the knee. In addition, he sustained brain injuries and developed PTSD.

His wife, Alicia, helps him throughout the day with his needs. Including getting in and out of his wheelchair. And driving him to doctor’s appointments. As well as pretty much everything else you can imagine.

These activities have taken up a great deal of her time and energy for much of the past eight years.

Triple Amputee’s Caregiver Cut Off

Fortunately, Alicia has gotten help from a monthly stipend from the Department of Veterans Affairs’ caregiver program.

Until now.

Recently she learned she’d been cut from the program. Why? Because her husband had not shown progress since 2011.

“All three of my limbs are still amputated, as they were (in) June 2007,” Matt said. “Those have not grown back. What they exactly expect from us triple amputees… I can’t really comprehend that.”

Program Flaw Exposed

Matt’s situation – and those of many other injured veterans – demonstrates the major flaw in the VA caregivers program.

“Progress” can be seen when a veteran is diligently trying to rehabilitate an injury. But missing body parts don’t grow back. Paralysis seldom disappears.

Marine Sherman Gillums is a paraplegic. Here’s what he says about the situation.

“Amputations and paralysis are permanent conditions. It’s not about recovery. It’s about sustaining your life. Even if they’re cut off from the program, they’re still needing that care.”

‘A Stab in the Back’

Alicia said the VA’s notice ending her aid was a devastating blow.

“It felt like a stab in the back. Like what I do is not worth it in their opinion,” she said. “Like I’m not part of their team like I thought I was.”

She added that the assessment of Matt not improving is inaccurate. Especially regarding his mental disabilities.

“He has progress daily,” she said. “But sometimes he has bad days or weeks… Life is like that.”

No ‘Can’t’ in Matt’s Vocabulary

Despite having to do almost everything with his right arm, Matt doesn’t sit around feeling sorry for himself.

This summer he competed – and triumphed – in races at the Department of Defense Warrior Games in Tampa, Florida.

He got medals for swimming, indoor rowing and sitting volleyball. And he received the Army’s “heart of the team” award.

“We don’t like to say the word ‘can’t’ in our family” Matt said.

Hundreds Cut From Program

But Matt and Alicia almost couldn’t make it to Tampa for the Games. After being cut from the program, traveling is a financial struggle.

When the caregivers program started, it was intended for only a small number of applicants.

But then the VA was overwhelmed by tens of thousands of applications. Over time, hundreds of caregivers were cut off.

The VA has twice frozen those cuts the past two years. But the most recent freeze came too late for Alicia and Matt.

Legislators Jump In

Last year, the U.S. Inspector General reported that the VA had failed to adequately manage the caregiver program.

Senators Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee and Gary Peters of Michigan introduced legislation to improve the program.

Their plan would give veterans and caregivers a way to appeal any termination or downgrade of aid.

Peters said, “Veterans and their families have sacrificed so much for our country. We must ensure they have the quality care and support they deserve.”

Caregivers Are ‘Unsung Heroes’

Of course, there are eligibility requirements for the caregivers program. Veterans must have sustained or aggravated a serious injury in the line of duty on or after September 11, 2001.

Caregivers can include family members. Or other members of the veteran’s support group that regularly help them recover from injuries.

Joy Ilem is the Disabled American Veterans National Legislative Director. She said, “Family caregivers are the unsung heroes for thousands of severely injured veterans.

“But mismanagement of the VA’s Program of Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers has… caused the improper disruption or termination of needed benefits.”

Program Works… When It’s Working

Currently, the primary caregiver of a disabled veteran gets a monthly stipend. Plus travel, lodging and financial assistance when traveling with the veteran for care.

In addition, the caregiver gets education and training. And access to healthcare benefits.

The caregiver also may get mental health services and counseling. And up to 30 days per year of respite care.

To be considered for the program, the caregiver must fill out an application. And mail it to the Atlanta, Georgia-based program center.

VA Wants to ‘Get This Right’

There is a planned expansion of the program in the works. And it might help Matt, Alicia and many others.

Gillums said he wants the expansion to include permanent financial help for caregivers of catastrophically injured veterans such as Matt.

Robert Wilkie is the VA Secretary. Here’s what he has to say.

“It is essential that we get this right. This affects one of our most vulnerable veteran populations. We need to make sure we have consistency on how we process and evaluate benefit applications across VA.”

Let’s hope they do get right. Nobody deserves it more than injured veterans and their caregivers.

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