This year's budget request for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is nearly $164 billion. That's the highest it's ever been.
This, of course, is good news for veterans and at a time of budgetary challenges, we at Wounded Warrior Project deeply appreciate the broad recognition of the debt this country owes those who served and sacrificed. But buried in the budget is a cut we find deeply troubling.
The VA's 2015 budget would reduce funding for traumatic brain injury (TBI) medical programs by 1.3 percent. VA defends this cut with the fact that they are seeing a dramatic decline in severe TBI cases in recent years, while only mild and moderate cases are rising. The rationale is that they will be able to continue to treat more people with that funding, as those being treated will require less care.
Yes, 1.3 percent might sound like a small reduction and it is true that winding down combat operations means the number of casualties is dropping. However, many warriors now living with TBI continue to struggle and we are concerned that VA is failing to account and plan for the profound current and long-term needs of this population. Current rehabilitation strategies typically invest heavily in the beginning phase of a warrior's recovery, but not during the longest and most defining phase of recovery, which begins upon the return home and lasts for the duration of their lives.
More than 233,000 service members have incurred moderate, severe or penetrating traumatic brain injuries between 2000 and 2011. VA has pushed hard on this issue and done groundbreaking work -- especially in its Polytrauma System and during the acute phase of recovery.
But as shown by our 2013 Annual Alumni Survey, the most statistically relevant and largest sample size of service members injured or wounded since 9/11, there is much work to be done. More than half of respondents rated their overall health as only fair or poor, with 54 percent stating that their health limits them a lot in undertaking vigorous activities. More than 25 percent said they need the aid and attendance of another person for more than 40 hours weekly because of their injuries or health problems.
For most TBI patients, care needs don't end with the healing of wounds or even hospital discharge. At that point, each veteran's road to recovery has only just begun, and rehabilitation is a slow, ongoing process. It is one thing to re-learn to walk and talk; it is another thing to regain some level of independence in the community. Too often, though, the rehabilitation services VA provides are terminated prematurely, and families are left to navigate on their own, in essence being "dropped off the cliff" upon their return home from an acute rehabilitation setting.
While we hope VA is correct in assuming a decline in the number of new veterans who will need TBI care, its budget appears to fall short in failing to account fully for the rehabilitative needs of those previously injured. Many of these veterans have ongoing needs -- for continued therapy and community services -- which VA is often not meeting, despite existing authorities to do so.
WWP is committed to caring for these wounded warriors because we don't want them to simply survive -- we want to see them thrive. The goal should be to empower these veterans to live as independently as possible; and we know, with properly funded care and adequate resources, that they can. We have stepped up to do our part. Thanks to generous donors from across the country, we've committed $30 million in 2014 alone to cover both the immediate and long-term needs of 250 of the most severely wounded warriors who would otherwise be at most risk for institutionalization. It's a big commitment, and one that clearly demonstrates that this is the worst possible time to be cutting funding for TBI care.
As a nation, we have an obligation to care for these young warriors who were injured serving our country. But it is well apparent that we have not done the proper work to prepare for this duty. WWP is calling for our leaders and citizens to invest in a national strategy for caring for this generation of veterans and their families. We've made a lifetime commitment to helping returning warriors fight the battle back home, to help ensure they get the veteran benefits, attention, and support they deserve, and we mean it. We ask you to stand beside us and tell the government you mean it, too.