By Martin Matishak - 07/19/14 11:14 AM EDT
With only two weeks to go before the August recess, Congress has yet to take action on legislation that would renew the pilot program before it expires on Sept. 30.
Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J) and Dean Heller (R-Nev.) proposed legislation this week that would prolong the treatment option for another three years at a cost of $46 million.
But the treatment program is at risk being lost in the shuffle, with lawmakers in both chambers of Congress preoccupied with trying to reach an agreement on overhauling the troubled veterans healthcare system.
Those talks are hitting the wall over questions about whether the cost of overhauling the Veterans Affairs (VA) clinics should be paid for through other changes to the budget.
Adding to the difficulty, the VA this week said it needs almost $18 billion in additional funding over the next three years to address its patient backlog — adding to a price tag for the reform bill that had already reached more than $30 billion per year.
Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, is also trying to win confirmation of President Obama’s pick to lead the VA before lawmakers leave town for five weeks.
Veterans groups say Congress needs to find time for the assisted living program, which began in 2008 in a bid to find more effective ways to rehab veterans who suffered brain injuries. A Senate bill that had language to extend the effort stalled on the floor earlier this year after a fight over how to pay for it.
Sanders and Sen. Richard Burr (N.C.), the Senate panel’s ranking Republican, have tried to resurrect the bill since then, but with no success.
On July 1, a coalition of service organizations, including the Veterans of Foreign Wars, sent a letter to the House and Senate conferees urging them to include an extension of the treatment program in the VA reform bill.
And on Wednesday, family members of veterans who have received care under the program sent a letter touting the treatment options provided by the program, including physical and occupational therapy, psychological counseling and behavior management.
Sanders on Thursday expressed doubt that negotiators could attach an extension of the program to the VA bill.
“I just can’t tell you at this point — we’re into some pretty tough negotiations — I can’t give a definitive answer on whether or not it gets into this bill,” he told The Hill.
Asked if lawmakers could approve a temporary measure to extend the effort’s life, Sanders said: “The answer is yes and it’s something we’ll take a hard look at.”
Burr said he had not seen the bill from Booker and Heller and was unsure whether it could be attached to the VA overhaul.
On the House side, Rep. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), who will face Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) in the November election, has introduced legislation to renew the program, but it is still sitting on the desk of the House Veterans’ Affairs Health subcommittee.
“We are working to get the House bill passed as soon as possible,” a House aide said Thursday. “Should the Senate bill pass, we would certainly take it up in an expeditious manner.”
Ralph Ibson, the national policy director for the Wounded Warrior Project, said it would be a “sad irony for Congress to fail to include in an access to care package, a critically needed access to care piece that will soon expire.”
The VA started turning away applicants to the pilot program in February, citing its looming expiration, according to Ibson. The VA states that 103 veterans are currently in the program, while the total number served is approximately 200 — a mere fraction of the estimated 265,000 veterans estimated to have suffered brain injuries in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.
The VA did not respond to a request for comment.
Ibson said veterans in the program face “pretty stark outcomes” if it ends, including going home where family members could be ill-equipped to handle the stress of providing care. Participants could also be consigned to nursing homes, which could prove costly.
“The VA promised me I could stay here for two years. I’m coming up on my second year and now they’re kicking me out,” said Don Rohm, who receives treatment at a VA facility in Egg Harbor Township, N.J.
He first suffered brain damage in 1981, when he was pushed down a flight of stairs while serving in the U.S. Army in Germany. Rohm endured more injuries as a firefighter with the National Guard when he was struck in the chin by a metal fire-hose nozzle, and years later fell off a ladder.
He was in a car accident four years later that caused him to have seizures.
Rohm, 53, said he remembers little of his life between 2000 and 2010, including getting divorced, because he was on a cocktail of medications to treat his injuries. He had also lost his ability to perform simple math.
“When I first got here I was mad at the world, [and] they taught me how to relax,” Rohm said.
Speaking through tears, he said that if it wasn’t for the care he’s received under the pilot program, “I’d probably be dead.”