One of the first commitments I made after becoming a congressman 14 years ago was to make the U.S. Congress, and the public, aware of the dangers of traumatic brain injury (TBI). As part of that commitment and in my role as co-chairman of the Congressional Brain Injury Task Force, every year I host a day on Capitol Hill dedicated to brain injury awareness.
Planning this year’s event, which will be held Wednesday, has allowed me to take stock of how far we have come since the Congressional Brain Injury Task Force first began its work in 2001.
We have learned more about the brain in the last five years than we have known during the last five centuries. My role as a lawmaker is to translate these advances in science into tangible benefits for my constituents. We know that roughly 3.8 million Americans suffer from brain injuries, and the greatest increases in these injuries have been in student athletics and on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Recognizing this, I pushed the Concussion Treatment and Care Tools (ConTACT) Act, which would create federal guidelines to better protect student athletes from concussions. The U.S. House of Representatives voted unanimously to support this legislation in September. Additionally, I voted for the Affordable Care Act, which most people do not know benefits brain injury patients.
We have a problem today in that patients with private insurance face great difficulty accessing rehabilitation therapies considering the varying policies of insurers. Healthcare reform offers a great opportunity to correct this wrong, and I plan to work with the secretary of Health and Human Services on this.
If you suffer a brain injury, you should be able to access therapy regardless of your insurance coverage. Just as people with physical injuries can access rehabilitation, people with brain injuries should be able to access rehabilitative care. Unfortunately, there is also great variability for our service men and women in accessing rehabilitation. Currently, some active-duty members are able to access cognitive rehabilitation therapy, while others do not. TRICARE today does not cover cognitive rehabilitation as a separate, billable service, and so some are left without rehabilitation.
We are breaking our promise to our service members when we do not offer them the chance to recover from these difficult injuries. Our soldiers solemnly swore to defend us against all enemies. We owe them every opportunity to resume productive and fulfilling lives when they return home from deployment.
In February, more than 70 members of Congress joined me in calling on Defense Secretary Robert Gates to extend TRICARE coverage to include cognitive rehabilitation therapy for soldiers recovering from traumatic brain injuries. We plan to meet very soon, and I hope we can put a contingency plan in place to directly help our brave men and women.
One of the reasons some of the brain’s mysteries have been unlocked is the research now being conducted by the Defense Department. There was no money in the federal budget for brain injury when we entered into the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Today it is recognized as an important part of our defense strategy.
The task force is still working with the Defense Department to strengthen policies in order to better identify service members with brain injuries coming off the battlefield, provide better care for our service members after diagnosis, and streamline eligibility guidelines for the Purple Heart. However, the Defense Department has already made much progress in terms of research. While, as a country, we may disagree on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, there will be some good that comes out of these conflicts in terms of better identifying and treating brain injury patients both in the military and in the civilian populations.
Today and every day, I speak as an advocate for brain injury patients, and what we need now is support — support for better policies for our service members, support for federal guidelines to protect our student athletes, and support for healthcare reform so that no matter your insurance, you will have access to care.
Pascrell is co-founder and co-chairman of the Congressional Brain Injury Task Force.