Helping those who served

17 years ago

As our servicemen and women return from operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, it has become clear that our nation must not only provide greater overall resources to provide care for them, but also must focus on meeting their particular needs.
    The increase in wounded service members has put a strain on Department of Veterans Affairs facilities to continue providing the care they currently deliver. But we have also begun to see new patterns in the kinds of care that we must provide, and where we must provide it. It is important to remember that not all of the wounds from this war are visible. This is the case with moderate to mild traumatic brain injury (TBI). It is also becoming apparent that high proportions of our newer veterans are in rural areas like our state of Maine, and that they will continue face particular challenges in accessing care.
With these factors in mind, the House of Representatives focused this week on passing a series of important bills to help veterans, including a bill that I authored focused on TBI and rural issues, in addition to several others that I oversaw in my role on the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.
The bill that I authored is called the Traumatic Brain Injury Health Enhancement and Long-Term Support Act of 2007 (H.R. 2199). It is the result of the efforts of members from both parties to address TBI and to begin to improve the outreach and oversight of health care provided to our rural veterans.
The ongoing operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have created some new health threats for our service members. While the use of Kevlar helmets and body armor has significantly reduced the frequency of penetrating injuries, body armor offers limited protection against non-penetrating injuries from blasts and high-impact falls. The wounded from Afghanistan and Iraq are returning with multiple injuries due to confronting suicide bombers and improvised explosive devices. These attacks often result in service members and veterans needing polytrauma care, and have caused an increase in veterans with TBI.
In fact, the injury is so common now that TBI is considered by many to be the signature injury of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Severe TBI is often easily recognizable, but mild and moderate TBI can be harder to detect. Because of this, some veterans may not even know that they are suffering from TBI and may go untreated.
My bill works to address this problem in several ways. It requires screening of veterans for TBI, establishes a comprehensive program for long-term TBI rehabilitation to be located at four geographically dispersed locations, creates TBI transition offices at each of the VA polytrauma network sites, requires the development of a TBI registry, and authorizes funds for the establishment of centers for TBI research, education, and clinical activities. It also forms the Committee on Care of Veterans with TBI to oversee all of these efforts and to make sure that we are addressing this issue.
Passing this bill is a major step forward for the detection and treatment of this long-term injury.
In addition, the bill also works to address some of the barriers to care that rural veterans face. It creates a pilot program for an innovative system for delivering readjustment counseling, mental health services and benefits outreach to rural veterans through mobile Vet Centers. It also creates an Advisory Committee on Rural Veterans. This section of the bill will help ensure that veterans in places like rural Maine get expanded access to care.
In addition, the other bills passed in the House this week will address a range of important veterans’ needs. One of these is the Returning Servicemember VA Healthcare Insurance Act (H.R. 612). This bill extends the period of eligibility for health care for combat service in the Persian Gulf War or future hostilities from two years to five years after discharge or release. The bill is meant to address mental health conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder, which may not be evident right after a veteran’s discharge from service.
Another bill allows the VA to partner with state and local governments to reach out to veterans and their families to ensure that they receive the benefits that they are eligible for and assist them in completing their benefits claims. Two other bills extend eligibility for VA rehabilitation benefits and require that chiropractic care and services be provided to veterans at all VA facilities within four years.
By passing these bills, the House of Representatives has taken a critical step forward in living up to the promises we have made to those who have served our nation with bravery and honor. Combined, the initiatives we have passed will help improve veterans’ health care, strengthen benefits for our men and women currently serving, and provide long overdue benefits for the veterans and military retirees who have already served.
As the Chairman of the Veterans Health Subcommittee, I am pleased that the House of Representatives is focusing on these issues. It is fitting to think about our veterans on Memorial Day. It is even more fitting to take action.