Pelosi Vows Democratic Oversight Ahead of New Veteran Caregiver Law

 House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, center, is presented with the Congressional Caregiver Champion Award by military caregiver Nikki Stephens and Steve Schwab, executive director of the Elizabeth Dole Foundation, during the foundation's Heroes and History Makers event in Washington, D.C. on Nov. 29. (Stars and Stripes photo/Meredith Tibbetts)
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, center, is presented with the Congressional Caregiver Champion Award by military caregiver Nikki Stephens and Steve Schwab, executive director of the Elizabeth Dole Foundation, during the foundation's Heroes and History Makers event in Washington, D.C. on Nov. 29. (Stars and Stripes photo/Meredith Tibbetts)

When Democrats take control of the House in January, a top priority will be to ensure the White House correctly implements a new law extending benefits to more veteran caregivers, said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

Pelosi, likely to be the next speaker of the House, spoke Thursday night at a convening of veteran caregivers hosted by former senator Elizabeth Dole. The Elizabeth Dole Foundation aids veteran caregivers and helped push through legislation during the summer that extends Department of Veterans Affairs benefits to caregivers of veterans injured before the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

"Earlier this year, Congress finally expanded eligibility to [caregiver] programs to every war era, but our work is not done," Pelosi said Thursday night. "Democrats will ensure VA has the resources they need to expand this critical lifeline."

Through a VA caregiver program implemented in 2010, benefits such as monthly stipends, health insurance, medical training and access to home health aides are available to family caregivers for veterans -- but only for those injured after 9/11.

The VA Mission Act, signed by President Donald Trump in June, brings major reform to the VA, including a gradual expansion of caregiver benefits to older veterans.

The VA is in the process of implementing the new law. This week, the agency announced it began taking public comment about creating new regulations for the caregiver program.

Related: VA Seeks Input on Caregiver Benefits

The existing caregiver program has faced scrutiny in the past two years, after families enrolled in the benefit complained in 2017 that they were inexplicably being dropped. On Friday, 14 veterans groups -- led by The Independence Fund -- signed a letter to VA Secretary Robert Wilkie with concerns that VA employees were still downgrading caregivers' benefits without explanation.

As the VA implements the Mission Act, it's an "opportunity to rectify these problems," the groups wrote.

The VA will take public input on the caregiver portion of the Mission Act until Dec. 12.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, also said Thursday that she would be focused on the issue in the new Congress.

"There are issues that transcend politics even in this terribly polarized world, and certainly one is military caregivers," she said at the Dole event. "The VA Mission Act will start eliminating the disparities between pre-9/11 veterans and post-9/11 veterans."

Pelosi and Collins received awards at the event for their work for caregivers in Congress. Tom Hanks also received an award. He is the chairman of Hidden Heroes, a campaign for the foundation that brings resources to veteran caregivers.

Hanks has been part of the Hidden Heroes campaign since it started in 2016.

"I'm in for the duration," he said Thursday.

When Hanks spoke to reporters about the campaign, he said: "I think the key word here is 'hidden.' These people are operating in the shadows, and they think there is no place to turn to, no phone calls they can make."

A 2014 study from the research organization RAND Corp. found there are 5.5 million veteran caregivers in the United States, 20 percent of whom care for veterans injured after 9/11. RAND found caregivers face more health problems, strained relationships and workplace issues than the general public.

As more injured service members transition out of the military, more caregivers will need help, Hanks said.

"This marks the start of work that is going to be going on for a generation," he said.

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