WASHINGTON - The Department of Veterans Affairs said Wednesday it supports expanding a caregivers benefit for grievously wounded veterans but only if Congress comes up with the billions needed to pay for the expansion.
Congress created the program in 2010, giving caregivers of seriously wounded veterans a stipend, health care and at least 30 days of respite care each year. But it was limited to veterans who served after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
Lawmakers told the VA to study the feasibility of expansion after some veterans groups raised questions about fairness.
The study, distributed to lawmakers Wednesday, said an expansion would cost up to $3.8 billion in the coming year. The VA voiced concerns about what the extra costs could mean to the overall quality of health care delivered to veterans.
"VA believes the expansion of benefits to caregivers of eligible veterans of all eras would make the program more equitable," the agency said in a statement. "Unfortunately, core health care services to veterans would be negatively impacted without the additional resources necessary to fund the expansion."
Caregivers of seriously wounded veterans - those who need help with daily activities such as feeding, bathing and dressing - are eligible for some help from the VA regardless of the war the veteran fought in, but not the financial stipend, now averaging about $2,000 a month. The amount of respite care available is also more generous for those caring for veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Under the enhanced benefit, caregivers also can get their health care through the VA.
The Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs passed a bill that would expand the caregiver benefit to all generations of soldiers. The bill also went a step further, increasing the types of injuries and illnesses that would qualify for extra help. Any veteran with a "serious-service connected disability" who needed help with basic activities of daily living would qualify.
But concerns about costs will be difficult to overcome, especially in the fiscal climate on Capitol Hill. Currently, about 11,000 caregivers are enrolled in the program. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that an additional 70,000 caregivers would participate by 2016 if the bill, sponsored by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., becomes law.
So far, the VA has escaped much of the cost-cutting that has hit other government departments. It was exempt from the mandatory budget cuts under sequestration, and agency employees were able to avoid furloughs. In fact, some were required to work overtime to speed processing of disability claims.