WASHINGTON – The Veterans Affairs Department reversed course Tuesday and said it will make sure more caregivers of severely disabled Iraq and Afghanistan veterans can receive the support they need to help their wounded relatives.
President Barack Obama signed a law in May of last year that provided a monthly stipend, mental health help and health insurance to family members who provide around-the-clock care to these veterans.
But when the VA announced earlier this year how the caregivers program would work, advocates and congressional members said it helped fewer families than they had expected. Among those who likely were not eligible were Sarah and Ted Wade, who stood with Obama at the bill signing. Ted Wade lost his right arm and sustained a traumatic brain injury in a roadside bombing in Iraq in 2004 while serving with the 82nd Airborne Division.
The VA now says about 3,500 families will be eligible, which is how many Sen. Patty Murray, the chairman of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, has said Congress wanted. Under the earlier plan, the VA said about 10 percent of the critically wounded from the recent conflicts would be eligible, which was about 850 veterans. The plan will cost about $770 million over five years.
Under the new plan, veterans eligible are those who sustained a serious injury who are in need of personal care services. But, families no longer have to show that the veteran would go to an institution without the caregiver's help.
The VA says it will begin taking applications on May 9 and the monthly stipend will be ready by July. To participate, the caregiver must agree to a home visit and some other requirements.
Deborah Amdur, the VA's chief consultant for care management and social work, said VA officials considered feedback in making decisions on how to implement the program, and she feels confident in how it will be rolled out.
"We have worked very hard to make this a success," Amdur said.
Murray said she'd been so concerned about the original plan that she'd taken up the issue with Obama. She said she's pleased that the administration changed its eligibility requirements.
"The VA correctly has responded in a positive way," Murray said.
The enhanced benefits are only for caregivers of veterans from the recent wars. But the VA has said it is improving other existing programs for caregivers of veterans from all eras. In February, it created a national caregivers support hotline that has received about 5,000 calls.
Veterans' service organizations had wanted additional support for all caregivers of veterans, but Congress was not able to come up with enough money to do so. The law instructs the VA to report to Congress within two years about the possibility of providing the enhanced benefits to all caregivers.