Facing a federal lawsuit, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs announced that it had reached an agreement to extend in-home health care through April for a veteran with Lou Gehrig's disease who needs around-the-clock care.
Michael Williamson sued the federal agency on Jan. 23 in U.S. District Court in Eugene after a VA contract company notified him that his home health care of nearly 17 years would halt on Feb. 13 because it couldn't find caregivers, according to the suit. The company, New Horizons, contracts with the VA's medical facility in Roseburg.
Seven days later, the Department of Veteran Affairs reached an agreement with New Horizons to extend care for another 60 days, Assistant U.S. Attorney Adrian Brown wrote in a court document.
Veterans Affairs also will continue to work toward a long-term solution to keep Williamson in his home, U.S. Attorney Billy J. Williams said in a prepared statement.
Officials at Roseburg VA Health Care System told Williamson that they had no other approved caregiving agencies in the area and that he would have to move to a nursing home in San Francisco, Boise or Washington's Puget Sound, according to the lawsuit filed on Williamson's behalf by Disability Rights Oregon, an advocacy agency.
Emily Cooper, legal director of Disability Rights Oregon, said the VA's action violated its own regulations, which directs the department to offer a choice of providers and provide continuity of care.
Cooper said of the temporary agreement, “It's a promising first step, but the fight's not over.”
Williamson, 51, served 14 years in the U.S. Air Force. He served in Iraq in 1988 and was in Saudi Arabia before, during and after Desert Storm in the early 1990s. Eleven years after serving in Iraq he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, ALS, a progressive neurodegenerative disease that attacks nerve cells in the brain and spinal column, taking away the ability to move, speak, eat and breathe.
He is on a ventilator and has a feeding tube for sustenance and medications. But his mind is fully intact, Cooper said.
In 2001, the VA recognized a connection between ALS and Gulf War veterans, giving them full disability and survivor benefits. After his diagnosis, Williamson received 100 percent permanent and total service-connected disability benefits, the suit says.
New Horizons has provided Williamson with nurse-directed care that includes caregivers who stay around-the-clock in his home. The suit doesn't detail how much that care costs.
According to the agreement that Disability Rights Oregon reached with the federal agency, Veterans Affairs “will continue to make best efforts to explore other possible arrangements with in-home care providers to permit Mr. Williamson to remain in his home for the long term. Such efforts may include working with state administrators and other licensed home health agencies.”
Having the VA reach out to state-licensed home care providers will help not only Williamson but other veterans in Oregon, Cooper said.
“By filing in court, we not only jump-started these talks,” but now the court may monitor the issue to make sure the VA upholds its agreement, she said.
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