Healing Touch

Policy act provision makes it easier for employees to spend time caring for loved ones injured during military service.

Despite the often exemplary care given at most Veterans Affairs Department medical facilities, sometimes the best care for a wounded warrior comes from a loved one. A provision tucked away in the fiscal 2010 Defense Authorization Act will make it easier for federal employees and other workers to take time off to care for family members injured while on active duty.

The measure -- summarized in a Dec. 29, 2009, memorandum from Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry to agency heads -- allows federal employees to take up to 26 weeks of unpaid leave annually through the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act to care for an injured veteran. To qualify, a veteran must be undergoing medical treatment or therapy for the injury, and he or she must have served in the military within five years of the treatment.

The new law builds on a provision passed in the fiscal 2009 Defense Authorization Act, which granted leave to help care for injured active-duty soldiers, by allowing time off to care for veterans as well.

"That's pretty significant," said Carl Bosland, a Colorado attorney who specializes in family and medical leave issues. "There are a lot of vets out there."

The 2010 law also broadens the types of injuries that qualify for the leave to include existing injuries aggravated by active-duty service.

In addition, the policy measure allows family members to take time off when active-duty troops are deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan. This leave can used to spend more time with the soon-to-be deployed soldier and settle financial or family issues. Previously, this benefit was available only to families of reservists called to certain types of duty.

Leave taken under FMLA -- whether for military care, medical issues, or the birth of a child -- is unpaid. But employees who have saved up other types of paid leave can apply that to make up some of the lost wages.

The authorization act provisions were prompted by 2007 revelations of substandard conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Giving family members more time to help loved ones hurt in battle was seen as a way to help improve the overall quality of care, Bosland said.

Berry said OPM will issue new regulations to implement the changes and post further details about the new benefits on its Web site.