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VA delays aid called for in Caregivers Act for families of wounded troops

Nellie Bagley gave up her job, health insurance and savings to keep a promise to a son whose brain was ripped in half by a grenade in Iraq.

She told her son, who is unable to walk or talk, he will never be alone.

So after he was released from a Tampa veterans hospital, Bagley took him home to Land O'Lakes and, with her daughter, cares for him around the clock.

"I'm going to keep that promise no matter what," Bagley, 59, said Tuesday. "He's my son."

But Bagley and veteran advocates are angry that the government isn't keeping its own promise to implement a program providing an array of aid to families caring for severely wounded veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Department of Veterans Affairs missed a Jan. 31 deadline to kick off the Caregivers and Veterans Omnibus Health Services Act, which President Barack Obama signed into law in May.

The program would provide financial assistance, health care and counseling to ease burdens that can be enormous.

One key provision would provide "respite care," allowing professionals to fill in for family for up to 30 days to give an emotional and physical break.

"Don't promise people you're going to help and then find excuses to back off," Bagley said. "What happened?"

A VA spokesman said the program will be implemented with "deliberate haste," noting its size and complexity.

Spokesman Nathan Naylor said this is the first time the VA has been authorized to provide aid to non-veteran caregivers.

"The legislation is unprecedented and requires the establishment of new business practices," Naylor said. "This is new territory for VA, but we have to get it right."

He said the VA has taken some steps toward implementing the Caregivers Act, including hiring coordinators for all 152 of its medical centers. That includes the James A. Haley VA Medical Center in Tampa and the Bay Pines VA Medical Center in St. Petersburg.

The VA noted it takes an average of 19 months to implement new programs. But Naylor offered no timetable on full implementation of this law.

The agency said it has been seeking advice from Congress, veterans groups and others about aspects of the law.

Obama gave the aid package a high priority. At a signing ceremony in May, the president said, "We're forever mindful that our obligations to our troops don't end at the battlefield."

First lady Michelle Obama even appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show touting the administration's efforts helping military families.

The Congressional Budget Office predicted the program would help 3,500 veterans and their caregivers and cost $6.7 billion over five years.

A spokesman for Disabled American Veterans said some worry the VA would try to limit eligibility to save money.

Adrian Atizado, DAV's assistant national legislative director, said research shows that veterans respond better to rehabilitation at home than in a VA facility.

"This is extremely critical to veterans and their families," Atizado said. "People are going bankrupt because of the lack of support."

A bipartisan group of 17 members of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee last week sent a letter to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki saying they were troubled by the delay.

They noted the VA had failed, as required by law, to provide the committee with even a report on the VA's plans for implementation of the program.

"At this point, the report is more than three months late," the letter said.

For Bagley, the assistance can't come quickly enough.

Her son, Jose Pequeno, 36, was in the Army National Guard on patrol in Ramadi, Iraq, in March 2006 when a grenade was lobbed into his Humvee. Another soldier was killed, and the left half of Pequeno's brain was destroyed, his mother said.

Pequeno, who was the police chief in Sugar Hill, N.H., at the time of deployment, was not expected to survive.

He eventually was sent to the polytrauma unit at Haley. His mother, who also lived in New Hampshire, moved to the Tampa Bay area to be near him. The family moved into a Land O'Lakes home designed to accommodate Pequeno's needs when he was released from the hospital in late 2009.

But Bagley said her new life is a constant financial struggle. Her daughter, Elizabeth, 26, quit college to help out, Bagley said.

"One month we pay the water, the next month we pay the phone," Bagley said. "We borrow from Peter to pay Paul."

Bagley said she is behind in rent, and though she has an option to buy, a house loan is an impossibility. But Bagley said her son has made dramatic progress living with his family.

"We're not asking the government to pay our bills," she said. "We're asking for help with the necessities we lost to care for our guys."

Bagley said her family saves the government money by keeping her son out of a VA facility.

"I don't wish this on anybody," she said. "But I made him a promise and I'm going to keep it. That's okay. We love him. And he loves us. We make the sacrifice."

William R. Levesque can be reached at levesque@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3432.

VA delays aid called for in Caregivers Act for families of wounded troops 02/15/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 15, 2011 10:34pm]
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