The wife of an Army veteran in Kansas has followed the Department of Veterans Affairs' pause of dismissals from its family caregiver program, so she was not surprised when a VA rep called to schedule the couple's eligibility assessment, given that VA officials said such reviews would continue during the hiatus.
She was shocked, though, when she received a letter dated April 18 telling her the couple was no longer qualified for the program.
While the letter stressed that no action will be taken during the VA's review, the woman, whose husband once qualified for the highest tier of assistance, was under the impression that no decision would be made until the department completed the task.
"This means that ... we will have to appeal under the current rules or reapply if the rules are changed," said the wife, who asked that her name not be used out of concern that she and her husband could face retaliation from local VA staff.
VA officials announced March 22 that the department would halt dismissals from the program until they could review changes made to eligibility criteria in 2020.
The pause resulted from an outcry over what appeared to be an inordinate number of discharges from the initiative, known as the Program of Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers.
Responding to requests from veterans advocates, VA officials began looking at the data and found that roughly 90% of post-9/11 veterans who previously qualified for the program were no longer eligible under the new criteria -- significantly higher than the 33% anticipated by the VA.
During a press conference March 22, VA Deputy Secretary Donald Remy explicitly said the VA would not "remove anyone from the program or decrease any support before we reexamine our current eligibility criteria."
But a disqualification letter such as the one received by the Kansas couple may mean more burden on the veterans who receive them, requiring additional paperwork and assessment interviews.
"I brought up articles [on the pause to my local VA], and they said the facts I needed were on the VA's website and I shouldn't believe everything I read elsewhere," the wife said. "It seems this continuation of removing veterans from this program is being done very quietly."
A VA spokesman said Wednesday that some veterans "unfortunately" still were receiving letters but reiterated that no one would be removed from the program during the review.
"No one has been removed from the program, regardless of any letter they have received. We're continuing to obviously do our review of the program and the folks who are in the program and that continues to go on," VA Press Secretary Terrence Hayes said.
Dismissal from the program can result in the loss of $1,800 to $3,000 a month, depending on where a veteran lives. The stipend is meant to reimburse a caregiver for the time and services they provide in lieu of a nursing aide or health assistant, and many caregivers who are enrolled in the program have left full-time jobs to care for their veterans.
The Kansas spouse left her job more than three years ago because her husband began acting erratically, wandering and not taking his medication on his own. He ran up gambling debts and went on spending sprees using the couple's credit cards.
He has been diagnosed with combat-related post-traumatic stress disorder and bipolar disorder and no longer leaves the house, his wife said.
"He'll leave the stove on, won't put cigarettes out. He falls down. Different things like that," she said. "He needs to be watched 24 hours a day."
The moratorium on dismissals confirmed complaints from advocates that the assessments were excluding veterans who require supervision and protection but don't have the severe physical disabilities that are the focus of the new criteria.
In an attempt to ease the financial shock to families of losing the stipend, VA officials said the monthly allotments would continue through March 2023 and would increase immediately for anyone deemed to be eligible for the highest amount.
VA officials have not said how many existing veterans in the program have been reassessed to a higher tier. Only about 1,700 legacy participants will even qualify for the program under the new eligibility criteria.
The review involves soliciting input from caregivers, advocacy groups and veterans service organizations. On April 21-22, Remy met with more than 26 veterans groups and state veterans representatives to discuss the program, as well as the review and the eligibility criteria.
According to documents received by Military.com, some of the groups in the listening sessions included the Independence Fund, Elizabeth Dole Foundation, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Veterans Warriors Inc., the Military Officers Association of America, Blue Star Families and more.
The groups received an overview of how the assessments are conducted, including what is known as a Veteran Functional Assessment, while VA officials present received input and feedback from the participants.
Hayes described the event as the first of many "listening sessions" and said no decisions were made at the meeting.
"It was definitely valuable to have the [veterans service organization/military support organization] partners at the table to solicit their feedback. We definitely are taking everything they said to heart and taking it for action," Hayes said. "That information was brought back to leadership ... because we want to get this program right. We want to ensure that our veterans are taken care of."
The program is expected to expand again this fall to include veterans from the period of 1976 to 2001. VA officials have said they do not expect the ongoing review to delay that expansion.
The Kansas spouse said she is happy that the program has been expanded to include veterans from other eras but believes that the new eligibility criteria was a money-saving move.
"I was really proud that the military was taking care of its vets. But when this happened, it's like they are just throwing them by the wayside," she said.
-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Military.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.