It was amid much fanfare in May that President Barack Obama signed into law new aid and programs that are desperately needed relief for families struggling to care for grievously wounded veterans at home. But nine months later, families like those of Staff Sgt. Jose Pequeno in Land O'Lakes are still waiting for help to arrive. It's a failure the Department of Veterans Affairs must be held to account for and correct.
The Caregivers and Omnibus Health Services Act — expected to cost $6.7 billion over five years — is designed to provide financial assistance, health care and counseling to roughly 3,500 families caring for the most severely injured Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. It marks the first time the VA has provided services for nonveteran caregivers. Among the most important provisions is much-needed respite care, where professional substitutes are deployed to give caregivers a modest break from the 24-hour care they provide their loved ones.
The president touted the legislation as a high priority, and first lady Michelle Obama appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show to extol the program's commitment to the nation's military families. Veterans advocates suggested it would enable more veterans to recuperate at home, where progress can come faster. And the law is a recognition of the extraordinary sacrifices families make on behalf of the nation — ultimately relieving the VA of some of its responsibility in caring for those who have paid an enormous personal cost on behalf of the country.
But the Jan. 31 deadline to implement the act has come and gone, and the VA seems at a loss to explain when it will comply, despite claiming it's working in "deliberate haste."
Such delay exacts an heavy toll on those left waiting, as St. Petersburg Times staff writer William R. Levesque highlighted earlier this month. Pequeno's mother, Nellie Bagley, gave up her job, health insurance and savings to move to Florida to care for her son, being treated at James A. Haley VA Medical Center in Tampa. Bagley said she now fears she will lose the home she is renting because of her and her daughter's inability to pay the bills. Pequeno lost half of his brain in 2006 when a grenade was lobbed into his Humvee in Iraq.
Pequeno, an Army National Guardsman, was working as a New Hampshire police chief when his country called. Now his family, by extension, is also answering the call. The nation has made a promise to honor their sacrifices. That promise must be kept, and each day's delay is a day too long.