Congress must extend brain rehab program for veterans

Congress is running out of time to extend a critically important program that currently supports our nation's most severely injured veterans.

The Assisted Living Pilot Program for Veterans with Traumatic Brain Injury (AL-TBI) is a five-year federal program that was established in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for fiscal year 2008. This program currently supports over 100 veterans nationwide that have experienced moderate to severe traumatic brain injuries. The provided rehabilitation services include needed care in residential facilities across the country that help these veterans improve their cognitive function and long-term health. The goal of the AL-TBI program is to provide these veterans with strong rehabilitative care in order to better prepare them for a successful return home. The final outcome will be veterans returning home with improved cognitive functioning and self-sufficiency skills that assist them in living as independently as possible.

This vital program supporting our disabled veterans will expire under law on Sept. 30, 2014, unless Congress extends the necessary authority for it to continue. There should be no reason the deadline gets any closer before Congress takes action to get this done. Congress must reauthorize this program and send it to President Obama to sign before our most vulnerable veterans get prematurely ejected from the care they desperately need and have earned.

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Caregivers and families of veterans have consistently described seeing improvements in cognitive functioning as a result of a veteran's participation in this rehab program. The AL-TBI program allows a veteran to rehab in a residential setting, where he or she can receive critical physical therapy and redevelop social and occupational skills.

Extension of the program has bipartisan support. Notably, both leaders of the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs, Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Ranking Member Richard Burr (R-N.C.), have supported efforts to extend the AL-TBI program. Right now, there are many important issues facing Congress, most of which focus on access to Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) healthcare, that need to be addressed immediately. However, extending this program should be one of the considerations of members of Congress seeking to address the VA's healthcare access crisis.

If correcting the faults of the VA system to improve veterans' access to healthcare is the goal, how could we claim success as a nation if we allow some of our most severely injured veterans to be ejected prematurely from rehab and "lose" their access to care?

The answer is: we couldn't.

The state of Illinois stakes claim to a man who once served in its state legislature and who by the end of his career became known throughout the world for his principled approach to communicating big problems. That man wrote letters to widows and disabled veterans during the Civil War acknowledging their losses and sacrifices to the nation. He penned in his second inaugural address what became the VA's motto, now branded outside the door of the VA central office building in Washington: "To care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan."

It is encouraging that Congress is eagerly working to correct the now well-documented deficiencies in VA healthcare access nationwide for our veterans. However, if the senators and representatives currently working to negotiate final legislation to address this problem do not also reauthorize the AL-TBI program for our nation's most severely brain-injured veterans, then the words in President Lincoln's second inaugural address will serve little purpose for those veterans who need their country's support now more than ever.

Neiweem is director of Veterans Policy at VetsFirst, a program of the United Spinal Association.