This article by Leo Shane III originally appeared on Military Times, the nation's largest independent newsroom dedicated to covering the military and veteran community.
Veterans Affairs officials announced Tuesday that all expulsions from the department’s caregiver support program will be halted while officials re-evaluate new eligibility criteria that threatened monthly support stipends for thousands of families.
The move is a stunning turnaround for the department, which for months has maintained the moves are necessary to bring the program’s membership into order ahead of a massive expansion in eligible families later in fall 2022.
But following significant criticism from advocates saying that the changes were unfair and endangered veterans’ financial well-being, officials reversed course and promised not to drop any program participants for the time being.
“We will not remove anyone from the program or decrease any support before we re-examine our current eligibility criteria,” VA Deputy Secretary Donald Remy said during a department leadership press conference Tuesday afternoon.
“There are veterans with moderate to severe care needs who are unable to be admitted into the program or remain in the program, as the regulations currently stand. That’s simply not what we want. That’s not what the veterans and caregivers need from us.”
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About 33,000 families are currently enrolled in the Program of Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers.
Initially the program was open only to post-9/11 veterans, but in 2018 Congress approved expansion to other generations as well. Individuals who served before May 1975 were admitted starting in fall 2020, and all remaining veterans will be eligible starting fall 2022.
While the program offers a series of legal and support services to families, the most prominent benefit is the monthly caregiver stipend.
Currently, a full-time caregiver tending to a veteran who is “unable to self-sustain in the community” can receive the full monthly stipend, while a caretaker for a vet with lesser but still life-altering limitations can receive a partial payment.
The totals vary based on where veterans live, but generally hover about $3,000 a month for the full Level 2 stipend and $1,800 for the partial Level 1 stipend.
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In 2020, when the Vietnam-era veterans were admitted to the program, VA officials announced changes to eligibility criteria focused on whether veterans can perform “activities of daily living.” In fall 2021, VA officials announced they would review all “legacy” participants — individuals admitted before October 2020 — to ensure they still met criteria for participation.
At the time, officials estimated that about one-third of the nearly 20,000 legacy participants could be dropped from the program because of eligibility changes.
On Tuesday, VA Secretary Denis McDonough acknowledged the actual number of veterans being dropped from the program was “a much higher number.”
VA officials had promised to keep paying benefits through 2022 to families leaving the program, to give them time to adjust to the lost income. But advocates said that for families with loved ones in need of constant care, the extra time would not provide anything more than a deadline for when their financial problems would begin.
McDonough acknowledged that frustration on Tuesday. Remy said the new review — which does not have any public timeline for completion yet — will take into account the missteps of the past changes to ensure families are not hurt again.
“We’ve learned,” he said. “This is not the first time that we’ve stepped back and re-examined our process here. We’re looking at how we can make sure we don’t repeat those mistakes. So this will look different, they will feel different and the result will be different for those caregivers.”
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VA officials were to testify on the issue before Senate lawmakers on Wednesday.
In a statement, Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jon Tester, D-Montana, praised the department’s for “taking the concerns of veterans and caregivers seriously and implementing changes to ensure they are not unfairly denied access to a program that has made a difference for so many.”
Similarly, Steve Schwab, CEO of the Elizabeth Dole Foundation, applauded Tuesday’s announcement.
“Over the last six months, the foundation and our close partners have held countless discussions with the VA voicing our deep concerns on the evaluation process and the negative consequences being felt largely by legacy post-9/11 caregivers,” he said.
“Today, because of our collective efforts, thousands of veterans and their caregivers will be reinstated into the program while a new evaluation and eligibility criteria are developed with the full engagement of the community.”
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However, not all advocates were as optimistic about the long-term fate of the families who already had been marked to leave the program.
Holly Ferrell, executive director for Veteran Warriors, an advocacy group that works with more than 3,500 caregivers in the program, said she hopes the new VA announcement amounts to real change and not simply delaying pain for the families.
“Is this a political stunt to get media attention off of the problems, to get caregivers to calm down and to give them false hope?” she said. “We have to remain cautious.
“Our concerns aren’t just about the legacy families, they’re about all the errors in this process. And if these families are evaluated later based on the same flawed criteria as before, that’s not a solution.”
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Tips for Lifelong Caregiving
Updated for 2022, MOAA has partnered with the Elizabeth Dole Foundation to provide an online resource outlining legal and financial support available to multiple generations of caregivers.