The Department of Veterans Affairs announced Friday that it will stop dropping caregivers from its stipend program. The temporary suspension comes three days after a report from NPR exposed concerns from veterans that their caregivers were arbitrarily cut, despite no change in their status.
The VA became aware of "continued concerns expressed by Veterans, caregivers and advocates about inconsistent application of eligibility requirements by VA medical centers," the department said in a statement said.
"It is essential that we get this right," said VA Secretary Robert Wilkie. "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 program started in 2011 to support family members of veterans who served in Iraq or Afghanistan. Caregivers receive a stipend — ranging from $660 to $2,600 per month — to provide home health care that would otherwise cost the VA millions of dollars.
But as NPR reported, many VA offices have drastically cut hundreds of caregivers off their rolls in recent years — often with little explanation to the caregivers. In Charleston, S.C., the VA dropped 94 percent of its caregivers in three years.
The VA calls the suspension temporary but says it will "continue to solicit feedback from external stakeholders" and is "reviewing policy changes as well as pursuing long-term legislative and regulatory changes."
After a 2017 NPR report, the VA briefly stopped kicking people off the program and carried out a strategic review. But the cuts continued.
The caregiver program is supposed to be growing to include veterans from World War II, Korea and the Vietnam era. But, as NPR also reported, the VA recently blew through its first information technology deadline, raising concerns about further delays. Congressional sources say the expansion could take years.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
For the past two years, NPR has been reporting on shortcomings in one of the VA's most popular and most troubled programs. The Caregiver Assistance Program pays stipends to family members, mostly wives and mothers, who care for their disabled veterans at home. But many caregivers have been thrown off the program, often without explanation. Today the VA announced there will be no more discharges.
NPR's Quil Lawrence joins me now. Hey, Quil.
QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.
KELLY: I feel like I should start by saying congratulations. It was your reporting that led to today's action by VA Secretary Robert Wilkie, so congratulations.
LAWRENCE: Least I can do.
KELLY: Remind us of what you found.
LAWRENCE: Well, we've been following this program, as you said. It's for post-9/11 vets right now. And once they came up with it, it just seemed right. For decades, mostly women, wives and mothers - some men - have been taking care of disabled veterans from wars like Vietnam, Korea and World War II. And with the post-9/11 generation, they thought, why don't we pay these people a stipend? They are doing millions of dollars of work that a nurse would have to do if the VA had to pay for that care.
So it was really popular. It got oversubscribed instantly. And the standards weren't really consistent. When we looked at it, we saw in the last few years after hearing rumors that caregivers were getting thrown off without really any consistency or any given reason. Building on that shaky foundation, Congress is now going to expand the program to veterans from earlier eras.
KELLY: Now, you had a report I remember hearing that aired just earlier this week. And that was detailing more people being thrown off the program.
LAWRENCE: Right. It was the third time we went out to look at this program in a particular region. We went to the Tennessee Valley this time. We found that they had dropped 80 percent of their caregivers in the past two years - 400 caregivers thrown off. And that included two double amputees and a triple amputee. And with a grim sense of humor, Chris Kurtz, who lost both his legs in Afghanistan and some fingers off his left hand - he said, nope, my legs haven't grown back, but I got knocked off the program. And the VA secretary, Robert Wilkie, was confronted about this at a joint hearing this week. And he was questioned here by Senator Patty Murray, a Democrat from Washington.
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PATTY MURRAY: The VA assured me that it had resolved the problems that led to these type of actions, but it's very clear that's not true.
ROBERT WILKIE: My promise to you is that I am going to do everything I can to make sure everybody stays in the program. It's that important to me personally.
LAWRENCE: So that's the first step, is that they're going to halt these revocations. It's not clear if anybody's going to be reinstated.
KELLY: Just very quickly, Quil, what happens now?
LAWRENCE: Well, we're going to see how this admission act expands. There are a lot of complaints in Congress about a lack of transparency. The VA has missed its first deadline to expand the program, and vets are worried it's going to take years for them to get on.
KELLY: All right, thank you, Quil.
KELLY: NPR's Quil Lawrence. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.