The Department of Veterans Affairs is expected to announce Tuesday that it will temporarily stop dismissing veterans from its program that provides benefits and compensation to family members who serve as their caregivers, according to two sources who have been briefed on the decision.
The decision comes after months of mounting pressure from veterans advocates as families who had relied upon the funds for years began to be booted from the program.
VA Secretary Denis McDonough and Deputy Secretary Donald Remy have agreed to the suspension, pending an investigation into the program’s new rules and an ongoing review that is expected to discharge roughly a third of the 19,000 participants from the program, according to the sources.
The suspension marks the third time VA has halted discharges, pending a planned restructuring of the Program of Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers.
The first was ordered in April 2017 and resulted in a series of changes to the program, including a directive to VA hospitals nationwide to fix administrative inconsistencies, which had been a top complaint among caregiver advocates.
The second occurred in December 2018 over concerns that medical centers were applying eligibility requirements inconsistently. That suspension followed an NPR news report that seriously wounded veterans, including a triple amputee, were dismissed or downgraded in program benefits.
The House and Senate Veterans Affairs Committees were briefed on the pending suspension Tuesday morning, according to a source.
The VA Caregiver Support Program was instituted in 2011 to support family members who provide home care to severely injured or disabled post-9/11 veterans. In 2018, Congress voted to expand the program to combat veterans of all eras, beginning Oct. 1, 2021, with veterans from World War II through the Vietnam War.
Veterans injured after May 7, 1975, and before Sept. 11, 2001, will be eligible for the program starting Oct. 1.
The expected suspension follows changes to the program that tightened eligibility for all participants. Under new rules that focus on a veteran’s inability to do physical tasks without assistance, VA launched a review of the program’s “legacy participants,” who were admitted under different parameters.
Veterans, caregivers and advocates say VA was under no obligation to institute new rules and argue that legacy veterans should have been grandfathered in under the original conditions.
VA officials say the new eligibility rules were meant to help the agency abide by a 2018 law that expanded the program. Severely injured veterans of previous wars were made eligible, while the more narrow eligibility rules overall were intended to allow the program to cover more veterans from earlier conflicts without radically increasing the cost of the program.
They said the program now provides consistency and will be fair and equitable for all.
A 2018 VA Office of Inspector General investigation into the program uncovered poor management oversight that resulted in the Veterans Health Administration paying $4.8 million to caregivers of veterans who weren't eligible for the program.
The IG's report also found long waits for acceptance to the program, as well as inconsistencies in applying eligibility criteria across VHA.
-- Patricia Kime can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @patriciankime.