VA to expand family support, mental-health services, will pull back on some surgeries

President Obama signed the Caregivers and Veterans Omnibus Health Services Act on Wednesday, calling the legislation a "major step forward in America's commitment to families and caregivers who tend to our wounded warriors every day." The bill, estimated to cost $3.7 billion over five years, expands veterans' care for women, the homeless and those who live in rural areas. It also provides help to family members who give up their jobs to become caregivers for severely wounded Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.

Caregivers will "receive a stipend and other assistance, including lodging when you travel for your loved one's treatment," the President stated. "If you need training to provide specialized services, you'll get it. If you need counseling, you'll receive it. If you don't have health insurance, it will be provided," Obama said. "And if you need a break, it will be arranged--up to 30 days of respite care each year."

In addition, veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, including National Guardsmen and reservists, will receive expanded mental health and counseling services and have access to hospitals outside the VA network for treatment of brain injuries. The law also eliminates co-payments for "catastrophically disabled" veterans, and increases health-related housing and transportation assistance for veterans living in rural areas. And to better to meet the needs of women veterans, the law includes enhanced maternity care and mental-health services for survivors of sexual trauma, plus a commitment to research the effects of war on women's physical, mental and reproductive health.

Meanwhile, investigators have determined several patient deaths at Marion VA Medical Center in southern Illinois in 2006 and 2007 were linked to surgical mistakes by undertrained physicians. As a result, the Department of Veterans Affairs has announced a new rating system that will classify the "surgical complexity" of procedures as complex, intermediate or standard-and puts corresponding limitations on the types of surgeries some hospitals can perform.

Based on its criteria, the VA has authorized 66 hospitals to conduct "complex" inpatient surgeries, 33 hospitals to conduct "intermediate" inpatient surgeries and 13 to conduct "standard" inpatient surgeries. This means that some hospitals will have to defer overly complex cases elsewhere, though the VA will still pay for the operations.

Last year, the VA performed more than 357,000 inpatient surgeries. Under the new system, about 250 of those surgeries would have been performed outside the VA, the Associated Press reports.

To learn more:
- read this Associated Press article
- check out this TIME article
- read this NPR story
- read this Washington Post blog post
- here's an Associated Press piece, via BusinessWeek
- read this Spokesman-Review article