Why Congress Should Pass 'Kaitlyn's Law' Today

New federal legislation would help the disabled daughter of a Navy captain -- and thousands more military families in need of hippotherapy.

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A U.S. Army sergeant receives equine-assisted therapy at Fort Myer in Arlington, Virginia. (Larry Downing/Reuters)

Congress has an opportunity now -- this week, this month, today even-- to do something truly noble; something that will help a disabled young woman, the daughter of a Navy captain, and thousands of other military families all across the country. Our federal lawmakers are about to contemplate the virtues and merits of a new military health insurance rule that clarifies the scope of reimbursement policies to ensure they cover an innovative form of physical therapy, called "hippotherapy," that has consistently proven to work on those who need it most.

The proposed measure introduced in the House of Representatives this week by Rep. Michael Burgess, a Texas Republican, is called "Kaitlyn's Law." You remember Kaitlyn Samuels, don't you? She's unforgettable. As chronicled last year in The Atlantic, she's the young woman whose physical disabilities make it impossible for her to walk or talk. In 2009, her loving parents discovered a form of physical therapy that helped Kaitlyn, body and soul. The therapy involves Kaitlyn sitting atop a horse, riding around a ring, allowing the animal's natural gait and rhythm to straighten her back, help her balance, and ease the pain from her severe scoliosis.

But when the Samuels' sought reimbursement for this professional therapy from TRICARE, the military's health care system, the request was denied. Such therapy, officials declared, was "unproven" and thus not reimbursable. What followed over the course of the next few years was a typical story of Pentagon mindlessness. Federal officials declared that they would reimburse the family for therapy that didn't work on Kaitlyn -- like sitting on a bench -- but would not reimburse the family for the physical therapy that did. The family's efforts to seek legal relief failed. The Pentagon said it needed additional guidance from Congress.

That was then. This is now. Since November, the family has received financial support from Jeff Gural, a racehorse owner and breeder and owner of racetracks in New York and New Jersey. (The ever-gracious family, in turn, re-donated some of that money to other children in need of hippotherapy.) The Samuels also have received legal help from Marcella Burke, a smart attorney with the powerful Akin Gump law firm. And, just in the past few days, the family finally has received a measure of political support from Rep. Burgess and Rep. Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican who served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and who thus understands more than most the burdens TRICARE may impose on military families.

Both the text and the purpose of "Kaitlyn's Law" are simple -- Rep. Cotton also is a graduate of Harvard Law School, and that no doubt helped. Listed as HR 1705, and formally titled the "Rehabilitative Therapy Parity for Military Beneficiaries Act.'' it reads in pertinent part:

(g) Rehabilitative therapy provided pursuant to subsection (a)(17) may include additional therapeutic exercises or therapeutic activities if such exercises or activities are included in the authorized individual plan of care of the individual receiving such therapy. Such exercises or activities may include, in addition to other therapeutic exercises or therapeutic activities, therapies provided on a horse, balance board, ball, bolster, and bench.

That's it. That's all. One paragraph that will tweak federal policy to make a vital difference to families without burdening federal resources. The clarifying paragraph above does not create a new mandate on private insurance carriers. It does not broaden existing coverage but rather precludes military insurers from second-guessing the diagnoses and treatment choices made by doctors and therapists who are treating patients like Kaitlyn. Those professionals still will have to justify their choices on medical grounds -- but when they agree that hippotherapy is effective and working their patients will get more support from TRICARE.

Presented by

Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, and Commentary Editor at The Marshall Project

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