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Fight continues for caregivers of all eras

House Committee - Unsung Heroes initiative - caregivers

For far too many veteran caregivers, what a difference a date can make.

Currently, VA’s Program of Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers allows the government to provide caregiver services for vets injured on or after 9/11. This means many veteran caregivers, who often times have made a life-changing commitment to care for veteran spouses or family member, go overlooked and receive no compensation for the care they provide.

Caregivers like Donna Joyner, who has provided daily care to her husband Dennis—who lost his legs and part of his left arm in Vietnam in 1969—and Yvonne Riley—whose husband Dave is a former Coast Guard rescue swimmer and quadruple amputee—are considered ineligible for the program simply because their veterans were injured prior to 9/11.

DAV’s Unsung Heroes initiative has raised awareness about the service and sacrifice of caregivers to America’s severely disabled veterans as well as the inequities of supports available, particularly for those injured in other eras. Legislation to expand the caregiver program has been stalled in the House and Senate for months due to disagreements over costs.

Unsung Heroes initiative - caregivers

In January, the Trump administration told Congress it could not support an extension of the program—which provides monthly stipends, health and respite care, as well as education and training to family caregivers of post-9/11 veterans—due to fiscal restraints.

In response, VA Secretary David J. Shulkin told the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs in February that by limiting eligibility for the program to the most severely injured and ill veterans, the department could expand benefits to veterans of all eras without inflating costs.

A Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report stated that the total cost for the caregivers’ program was about $454 million in 2015, or $18,300 per enrolled veteran. The report stated that the majority of those costs were related to the stipend paid to caregivers.

To qualify as a caregiver, individuals must be 18 years of age and either a member of a veteran’s extended family or live with the veteran full time. Stipends are paid monthly and are based on the hours of daily care the veteran requires and the prevailing wage for home health aides. In 2015, program stipends ranged from $7,700 to $29,000 annually, averaging $15,600.

House Committee - Unsung Heroes initiative - caregivers

The VA estimates that if the program expands with the current eligibility rules, it would enroll 188,000 caregivers over the throughout the next 10 years. With the proposed restrictions, the number of caregivers receiving assistance would grow to 40,000 over the next 10 years, avoiding roughly $2.5 billion in implementation costs.

Shulkin proposes restricting eligibility to veterans who need assistance with at least three daily activities, such as eating, bathing and dressing. Veterans with cognitive dysfunctions remain eligible. He says eligibility changes could bring consistency to a flawed program.

House Committee - Unsung Heroes initiative - caregivers

Spurred by a National Public Radio investigation that found 32 VA medical centers had cut the number of benefitting families from the program since 2014, the review found inconsistent decisions across the VA system, with some caregivers and veterans erroneously removed from the program. Since then, the agency halted removing veterans from the program for three months while it trained employees who work with caregivers.

For a one-month period, the VA sought public input about possible changes to the program, such as necessary qualifications, reassessment frequency and how the VA should calculate monthly stipends. The VA will review those responses over the next weeks to determine patterns and use the responses to guide regulatory changes.

Take action and learn more about DAV’s Unsung Heroes initiative.

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