Durbin Announces Committee Approval of Legislation to Improve Prosthetic Care for Veterans

[CHICAGO] – U.S. Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) announced today that the Senate Appropriations Committee, of which he is a member, last week approved legislation including language he authored to improve orthotics and prosthetics care for the nation’s servicemembers and veterans.  Durbin inserted a section into the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs appropriations bill, which the committee approved Thursday, which would enhance research in best practices and offer competitive grant funding to colleges and universities offering degree programs to train specialists. 


“Our nation’s servicemembers make enormous sacrifices for their country.  When they return home, they deserve the best care our nation has to offer,” Durbin said.  “The demand for prosthetics is higher than ever, and the field grows more complex and advanced every day.  Last week, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved a bill containing a provision I authored to make sure that the next generation of clinicians can meet the needs of our veterans and service members.  My legislation will expand training opportunities and help disseminate information so that the latest breakthroughs can begin helping amputees as soon as possible.  This is a relatively small investment that will go far to ensure the prosthetics field can continue honoring our promise to wounded warriors for many years to come.”


The spending bill dedicates $589 million for medical and prosthetic research which builds on the work of Northwestern University and the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, two national leaders in the field of prosthetics and orthotics research and training.  Durbin made his announcement after touring the Northwestern Prosthetic-Orthotic Center, a partnership between the two institutions.


The measure contains the same provisions as two bills Durbin introduced last year.  The first authorizes a competitive grant program to help colleges and universities develop master’s degree programs focusing on orthotics and prosthetics.  Each institution receiving one of these grants will require students to rotate through facilities run by the Departments of Veterans Affairs or Defense, or that hold VA contracts.  The bill also requires the VA to establish a Center of Excellence in Prosthetic and Orthotic Education to provide evidence-based research on the knowledge, skills and training clinical professionals need to care for veterans.  Chicago would be a leading contender for that Center of Excellence. 


The second piece of legislation establishes the first centralized collection of outcomes-based research on orthotics and prosthetics.  Currently many practitioners rely on personal experience and trial-and-error methods, rather than empirical data, to determine which prosthetic device will work best for a given patient.  This can result in a patient being fitted for several different devices before the ideal fit is found, a lengthy and potentially costly process.  The research collection established by the bill will give caregivers the knowledge they need to better match prosthetic and orthotic devices with individual patients, saving time and money by improving the likelihood that a veteran’s first prosthetic will also be the best.  In addition, the research collection will provide information on advanced materials, technologies and devices.


In the past decade, the skill set to provide this state-of-the-art care has become increasingly complex.  Unfortunately, there are only around 7,100 prosthetists and orthotists nationwide, with one in five either past retirement already or eligible to retire in the next five years.  Current degree programs are not widespread enough to meet this demand for new practitioners: Northwestern University graduates 50 students a year, several times larger than any other degree-granting program.  Should these degree-granting programs continue at their current rate, they will only be able to replace around two-thirds of the clinicians who retire in the next 20 years.


The Department of Veterans Affairs serves approximately 40,000 individuals with limb loss each year.  Advances in medical technology have greatly increased the survival rate for even the most grievously wounded service members, but many of those survivors still lose limbs due to their injuries.  That increased survival rate, coupled with the greater use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in Iraq and Afghanistan, have led to an amputation rate double that of previous conflicts – 1,715 individuals have suffered combat-related limb loss in the two conflicts.  Though requiring lifelong care, those medical advances also mean amputations do not preclude a long and healthy life: U.S. News and World Report reported that there are at least 167 soldiers who have had a complete loss of an arm, leg, hand or foot who have remained on active duty.