The Department of Veterans Affairs on Friday announced it would temporarily stop discharging veterans from a program that provides compensation and benefits to family members who take care of them.
In a release announcing the suspension of discharges from the Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers program, the VA said it was halting dismissals because of "continued concerns expressed by veterans, caregivers and advocates about inconsistent application of eligibility requirements by VA medical centers" of the program.
"It is essential we get this right," VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said. "This affects one of our most vulnerable veteran populations, and we need to make sure we have consistency on how we process and evaluate benefit applications across VA."
The announcement comes days after NPR reported that seriously wounded veterans, including a triple amputee, were still encountering problems with the program and had been downgraded or dismissed. The report was cited by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., during a joint Senate and House Veterans Affairs Committee hearing on the VA's community-care programs Wednesday.
"This seems to be the VA is still focused on keeping people out of the program instead of making it better for our veterans," Murray told Wilkie.
A 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, released in August, also found long waits for acceptance to the program, as well as inconsistencies in applying eligibility criteria across VHA. It recommended the VA tighten program oversight by bolstering staff and improving the information technology needed to support it.
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.
Families earn stipends of between $660 and $2,600, depending on the level of care needed, and have access to health care.
A similar temporary stop was ordered in April 2017 as VA officials started an extensive review of the program. That stop and review led to a series of changes, including a directive to VA hospitals nationwide to fix administration inconsistencies, which had been a top complaint among caregiver advocates.
In May, Congress voted to expand the program to include veterans from all eras, using a phased approach, starting with the oldest veterans with severe service-connected injuries. Implementation of the expansion, however, rests on the VA upgrading the information technology and staff to support the program.
Once that is done, veterans injured on or before May 7, 1975, could be eligible for the program starting in 2019. The second phase, which would allow veterans injured after May 7, 1975, and before Sept. 11, 2001, would begin two years later.
According to congressional sources cited by NPR, the VA already has missed a deadline for the IT certification process.
When asked about this by Murray, VA officials said they are working to test a new system. Wilkie assured lawmakers that he is going to do everything he can "to make sure everybody stays in the program."
"It's important to me personally," he said.
According to the release, the suspension does not affect those currently seeking admittance to the program. VA medical centers will continue to accept and approve applications based on the current eligibility criteria.
-- Patricia Kime can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @patriciankime.