VA secretary promises help for pre-9/11 caregivers, vets with other-than-honorable discharges

VA secretary promises help for pre-9/11 caregivers, vets with other-than-honorable discharges

Photo credit: VA Photo/Robert Turtil

By Gina Harkins, senior staff writer 

The head of the VA has pledged to extend benefits to some of the most vulnerable groups who are currently ineligible for care. 

VA Secretary David Shulkin told lawmakers May 3 he plans to extend benefits to two groups: pre-9/11 caregivers and veterans with other-than-honorable discharges who are suffering from mental health issues. 

“You know maybe this doesn't fit into the budget, but basically I don't care,” Shulkin said while testifying before a House appropriations subcommittee. “[It's] the right thing to do.”

Shulkin called the caregivers program, which started in 2010, a tremendous success. The program provides caregivers of veterans who were injured in the line of duty on or after Sept. 11, 2001, with monthly stipends, access to health care, mental health counseling, and other services.

The VA is now reviewing the policy in order to find ways to extend similar benefits to caregivers of older veterans, Shulkin said. He plans to announce the changes to that program “in the next couple of months,” he added. 

“It is our intent to be able to bring this to pre-9/11 caregivers because, frankly, the most vulnerable group right now are elderly veterans,” he said. “The worst situation is when somebody is in their home and they have to leave their home to go to an institution, a nursing home.”

It's cheaper to keep veterans in their homes with caregivers than it is to move them to an outside facility, Shulkin said. The department will use the money they have for the existing program to come up with an even better policy, he said. 

It's not immediately clear whether existing policies like the aid and attendance or housebound benefits would be affected by the changes to the caregiver program. 

Shulkin also promised to offer mental health care to veterans with other-than-honorable discharges. He shared a story of a veteran who was declared AWOL after becoming distraught when his wife suddenly left him. The man showed up at a VA facility, Shulkin said, and asked for help. He was suicidal, he told the employees there. But he was turned away because his other-than-honorable discharge left him ineligible for VA care. 

“You could see he was suffering from severe mental and emotional disorders. … He had served our country six times - six tours,” Shulkin said. “That's just not acceptable. When we say that there are 20 veterans taking their life every day, we know it's this group that is among the highest. No one wants to help them.

“Well, I'm not just going to sit by,” he added. 

When pressed to explain how he would pay for those programs when the VA already struggles to fund benefits for existing patients, Shulkin said he'll use existing resources to do it. 

“I don't want more money for this,” he said. “We're going to find a way to help these people and then connect them to the community resources and get them help.”

Gina Harkins can be reached atginah@moaa.org. Follow her on Twitter:@ginaaharkins

 

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