Veterans’ Administration Forcing Air Force Veteran with ALS to Move to Out-of-State Nursing Home

Portland, Oregon—Yesterday, in U.S. District court, a U.S. Air Force veteran with 14 years of service filed suit against the Veterans Administration (VA), claiming the agency has failed to meet its obligation to provide him with continuous care for his 100 percent service-connected disability. Springfield, Oregon resident Michael Williamson has received life-sustaining in-home care for his ALS for nearly seventeen years through a local provider that contracts with the VA Homemaker Home Health Aide Services (HHHA).

In November, the provider, New Horizons, notified Michael that it would terminate his care effective February 14, 2018.  Instead of finding a new provider or enforcing the contract with New Horizons, the VA offered to move Michael into nursing homes in San Francisco, Seattle, or Boise - hundreds of miles from his family home and family. The lawsuit charges the VA failed to follow federal law including the VA’s own regulations.

“Though I feel deep gratitude for what the Veterans Administration has done for me and my family over the years, now issuing me a choice between moving into a nursing home out of state, away from my family, friends and my home, or going off of my ventilator and dying is no choice at all,” said plaintiff Michael Williamson. “The VA and any contracted VA provider, in this case New Horizons, should be prevented from treating any veteran in this way.  It frustrates me that I have to file a lawsuit, so the VA will enforce their contract with New Horizons."  

In 1988, Michael was put on a temporary duty assignment in Iraq, where he was part of the effort to provide security for humanitarian aid due to the Iraq and Iran conflict. He was then deployed to Saudi Arabiabefore, during, and after Desert Storm. Eleven years after serving in Iraq, he received a diagnosis of ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) and was forced to retire from the armed services.

ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, is a fatal, devastating, progressive, neurodegenerative disease that attacks nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. The illness destroys muscles, taking away peoples' ability to move, speak, eat, and breathe while leaving their mind intact. Mike receives 24-hour-a-day care services, supervised by a nurse, in his home. The in-home care attendants make sure his ventilator is working properly, use his feeding tube to administer meals and medications, and attend to all of his daily care needs, such as bathing, dressing, and moving.

“We all want to honor the service and sacrifice of our nation’s veterans who have bravely served our country. One way that we do this is through our solemn promise to meet their healthcare needs,” said Emily Cooper, Legal Director for Disability Rights Oregon. “In failing to create a system of care that enables veterans to stay in their community, the Veterans Administration is breaking that promise and turning its back on the courageous men and women who have served in our armed forces. Federal law requires the VA to provide care in the most integrated possible setting. Forcing Mike into a nursing home hours away from his family and community fails to meet that obligation.”

The same year that Michael retired from the Air Force, he received 100 percent permanent and total service-connected disability benefits. Federal law prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities and requires that disability programs that receive federal dollars provide services in the most integrated setting appropriate to the person’s needs. The lawsuit requests that the VA provide Michael options in his own community rather than moving him to another state.   

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About Disability Rights Oregon
Disability Rights Oregon upholds the civil rights of people with disabilities to live, work, and engage in the community. The nonprofit works to transform systems, policies, and practices to give more people the opportunity to reach their fullest potential. For 40 years, the organization has served as Oregon’s Protection & Advocacy system. 

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