One of our core beliefs at VetsFirst is that disabled veterans must have timely access to quality Department of Veterans Affairs health care and benefits. Veterans who are unable to access these needed services and benefits may be unable to reintegrate into their communities. For many veterans living with disabilities, family caregivers play a crucial role in providing the assistance that allows them to return to and remain in their homes.
The sacrifice of family caregivers not only supports veterans, but also VA’s mission to take care of those veterans. Without the support of a family caregiver, many would be unable to live in the community. Spouses and family members often must leave the workforce, to assist their husbands, wives and adult children. Leaving the workforce may result in lost income and other benefits, including health insurance.
A recent study by the RAND Corp. (available online at www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR499.html) gives the first research-based view of the impact on these caregivers. The study, “Hidden Heroes: America’s Military Caregivers,” found that 5.5 million individuals are serving as caregivers for service members and veterans living with disabilities. Of those caregivers, 1.1 million are providing caregiving services for veterans and service members who served post-9/11. Veterans’ children make up the largest group of caregivers for pre-9/11 veterans, while veterans’ spouses represent the largest group of caregivers for post-9/11 veterans.
The study found that the burdens of caregiving can have a negative impact on caregivers. For example, caregivers have worse health outcomes, both mentally and physically, when compared with their non-caregiver peers. Caregivers also have decreased marital and relationship satisfaction, and increased difficulty in balancing work and caregiving duties.
For caregivers of post-9/11 veterans, the burdens are even greater. RAND found that these caregivers are less likely to have a support network and are more likely to be balancing caregiving with employment. They are also less likely to help with activities of daily living like eating and bathing and are more likely to help their veteran in coping with anxiety and stressful situations.
To help all caregivers better meet the challenges of caregiving, VetsFirst contributed material to and advised in the development of an online resource guide focused on helping caregivers navigate the legal and financial aspects of caregiving. The guide, “Tips for Lifelong Caregiving,” was spearheaded by the Military Officers Association of America and the Elizabeth Dole Foundation. It is available at www.moaa.org/caregiver.
VetsFirst has also been a strong supporter of efforts to increase services and benefits available to caregivers through VA.
In May 2010, the president signed the Caregivers and Veterans Omnibus Health Services Act of 2010 (Public Law 111-163), to provide critical supports for caregivers of disabled veterans. Caregivers for all eligible veterans who are enrolled in the VA’s health care system have access to education sessions, support services, counseling, mental health services and respite care. In certain circumstances, the law also provides enhanced benefits to caregivers, including a monthly stipend and access to medical care. To be eligible, the veteran must have a serious injury, such as a traumatic brain injury, as a result of their military service post-9/11.
Several legislative efforts have been advanced to improve and expand eligibility for VA’s caregiver benefits. The most comprehensive effort is the Military and Veteran Caregiver Services Improvement Act of 2014 (S. 2243), which was introduced by Senator Patty Murray (D-Wash.) following the findings of the RAND study. This legislation would increase access to caregiver benefits and make other critical changes needed to ensure improved services for significantly disabled veterans and service members and their caregivers. For instance, it would extend enhanced caregiver benefits to the caregivers of veterans who meet the level of need regardless of era served and of veterans with serious illnesses related to their military service. It would also expand the types of services available to caregivers to include financial planning and legal services.
To ensure that Congress takes action on these legislative efforts, we need your voice. Please sign up for VetsFirst’s advocacy list so that you can keep up to date on action related to these bills. Sign up today at www.vetsfirst.org/be-an-advocate.