It’s time for the VA to stand and deliver care to paralyzed veterans

by Vern Evans

New advancements in assistive technology have offered many veterans with spinal injuries a new lease on life. Due to innovations in robotics, many men and women who were paralyzed during their service to our country have been able to stand, walk, and move about with mechanical mobility and a regained sense of independence.

However, it’s egregious to think that these same men and women who have been injured in service to our nation might have to struggle and claw through bureaucratic red tape just to access the resources and technology they now require to achieve this independence. Those who stood in harm’s way for us — and in doing so lost their ability to walk — deserve every ounce of our help.

That’s why I introduced the Veterans Spinal Trauma Access to New Devices (Veterans STAND) Act, which requires the Department of Veterans Affairs to offer annual health evaluations of paralyzed veterans, identify those who may be eligible for FDA-approved assistance devices — powered exoskeletons, for example — under existing and emerging VA clinical guidance, and ensure those veterans are actually able to receive these technologies in a timely, reliable manner.

I announced this legislation in November 2023 along with House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chair Mike Bost, R-Ill., Ranking Member of the Health Subcommittee Julia Brownley, D-Calif., and Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., because the health and success of our veterans is a priority that transcends party lines.

The fact is, we are systematically failing those paralyzed from service if they are being denied expeditious access to essential technology. The few veterans who have received these devices through the VA have only been able to do so following extreme self-advocacy, months of delays, and often hundreds of miles of travel to find a VA doctor and facility willing to meet their needs.

These barriers exist despite the VA’s own research, which has shown the tremendous physical and mental health benefits these technologies afford for veterans with spinal cord injuries and disorders, or SCI/D.

We must do better as individuals, as a legislature, and as a nation to honor the brave service members who volunteered in our place to make unparalleled sacrifices without guarantee of their own safety. When innovation has the potential to grant SCI/D veterans a new lease on life, Congress has the responsibility to bridge that gap and ensure VA is doing everything it can in service to those who served.

According to the VA, there are approximately 42,000 veterans with spinal cord injuries in the U.S., only 27,000 of whom receive VA annual care through the VA SCI/D network.

Evidently, there’s ample room for improvement at the VA to extend vital assistance to paralyzed veterans, which is why this legislation has been endorsed by Disabled American Veterans, Paralyzed Veterans of America — the two largest organizations dedicated to serving SCI/D Veterans — and the Reserve Organization of America, the only operation solely dedicated to supporting the Reserve components and their critical role in our nation’s defense.

Demand can’t be met with apathy or sluggishness. Congress must do its part to ensure that VA acts swiftly and pragmatically on behalf of the greatest among us by advancing the bipartisan Veterans STAND Act.

The bottom line is this — technology is ready to serve those who served us. Now it’s time to do our part and complete this critical mission.

Jack Bergman serves as Representative for Michigan’s First Congressional District. Bergman served for 40 years in the United States Marine Corps, retiring in 2009 at the rank of Lieutenant General.

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