Baucus, Tester push Defense Secretary for new treatment for troops with brain injuries

Senators say Pentagon should cover specialized traumatic brain injury care

(Washington, DC) – Montana U.S. Senators Max Baucus and Jon Tester today urged the Pentagon to start covering the cost of cognitive rehabilitation care for soldiers with traumatic brain injuries. In a letter to U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Baucus and Tester are also pushing for a meeting to move forward with ways to give veterans with brain injuries fair and equitable coverage for therapy.

The Pentagon’s health care plan for military servicemen and women, known as TRICARE, currently does not cover cognitive rehabilitation care for these injuries. Baucus and Tester point out that Montana Medicaid covers the treatment for patients with traumatic brain injuries as further evidence that TRICARE should follow suit for Montana troops.

“Our troops deserve only the best when they come home – and that includes getting the best medical treatment. It’s unacceptable that soldiers, Marines, sailors and airmen who suffer from brain trauma cannot get this specialized treatment covered under the current system,” said Baucus. “Although brain injuries are often called the ‘invisible wounds of war’ they take a serious toll on our veterans and their families and we owe it to them to make sure that we spare no expense to make sure they have access to every rehabilitative service out there.”

“When we talk about veterans with the invisible wounds from Iraq and Afghanistan, we’re talking about folks who have sacrificed a part of themselves on the battlefield for all of us,” said Tester, Montana’s only member of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee.  “They deserve the best care available when they come back home, and we should do everything we can to make it happen.  Here is one next step we can take to make sure we’re living up to the promises made to these brave men and women.”

Karen Bohlinger, wife of Montana’s Lieutenant  Governor John Bohlinger, is a long-time advocate for increasing treatment available for veterans suffering from Traumatic Brain Injury. Mrs. Bohlingers’s son, a veteran, suffered a TBI while a Special Forces soldier deployed to Iraq.

“The most current technologies and best practices must be available, for all service related TBI.  As Senators Baucus and Tester are well aware, with immediate care we experience far better outcomes,” Bohlinger said.  “Our soldiers have earned this care, and deserve our unfailing support.  We can and must do better.”

Cognitive rehabilitation is widely recognized as a proven treatment for traumatic brain injury by experts and groups, including the National Institutes of Health, the Brain Injury Association of America, and the National Academy of Neuropsychology.

TRICARE pays for rehabilitation for physical injuries, but brain injuries are not given the same therapy.  Recent news stories have highlighted TRICARE’s questionable refusal for covering the treatment. Baucus and Tester joined a bipartisan group of Senators in signing the letter to Gates.

The text is as follows:

Dear Secretary Gates,
As you may know, members of the Congressional Brain Injury Task Force, as well as other supportive Members of Congress, have written in the past in support of TRICARE covering cognitive rehabilitation for service members with brain injuries.  In 2008, then-Senator Obama and then-Senator Bayh led letters with eight members of the Senate and over 65 House members.  Two years later, the Department is still studying the issue and does not expect to make a decision on the results of a study mandated by the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2010 anytime soon.
We hope you share our concern that service members returning from the battlefield today cannot wait to receive treatment for their injuries.  Considering that our service members have been deployed in two conflicts for nearly a decade, it is our hope that there exists some contingency plan to ensure all service members returning home today get the best available care, including cognitive rehabilitation.  While TRICARE clearly pays for rehabilitation for physical injuries, brain injuries—the invisible wounds of this war—are not given the same therapy.  Recent stories by NPR and ProPublica give examples of providers at civilian clinics who have tried to help soldiers with their cognitive rehabilitation, only to be informed by TRICARE that they cannot receive payment for their services.
As this issue is studied, we ask that you share with us your plans to ensure that our service members with brain injuries are not only identified, but also able to receive treatment such as cognitive rehabilitation to restore their cognitive functions.  Cognitive rehabilitation is widely recognized as a proven treatment for traumatic brain injury by experts and groups, including the National Institutes of Health, the Brain Injury Association of America, and the National Academy of Neuropsychology.  Many states pay for cognitive rehabilitation under their Medicaid programs, and most private insurers cover this service.  In light of this consensus from a wide variety of organizations, experts and government agencies, we hope that TRICARE will find some way to provide access to cognitive rehabilitation for our returning service members who would benefit from this therapy.  We also respectfully request a meeting with appropriate officials at the Department to discuss TRICARE’s plans to ensure treatment coverage for our service members with brain injuries.  
Thank you for your consideration of this request.  Please let us know how you plan to expedite new treatments for traumatic brain injured soldiers as soon as possible.  We look forward to working with you to provide the best care to our service members.
{end of letter text}

Additional information:
Baucus and Tester are leading efforts to improve care for Montana veterans.

•    Last year, Senator Baucus introduced The Traumatic Brain Injury Care Improvement Act, S.3035, which aims to establish a Traumatic Brain Injury rehabilitation center more accessible to Montana veterans.

•    Tester’s landmark Rural Veterans Health Care Improvement Act became law last year.  The legislation permanently raised the mileage reimbursement rate for disabled veterans, opened up grants to transport veterans to VA facilities, and is strengthening recruitment and retention of quality providers in rural communities.
•    As Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Baucus introduced and helped pass the Relief for Rural Veterans in Crisis Act of 2008, which was included in the Medicare Improvements for Patients and Providers Act of 2008. The State of Montana was awarded a grant this year under the new authority, which will bolster rural hospitals' ability to provide mental health services for veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.