Veteran caregiver incentive offered

By Tom Philpott: Military Update

Primary in-home caregivers to severely wounded veterans of current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will be paid a stipend by the Department of Veterans Affairs, under a bill Congress has passed unanimously.

The stipend, payable to a spouse, parent, child, friend or even a hired caregiver, will be based on number of hours and level of care. But it will at least match pay for caregivers in the private sector.

The Caregivers and Veterans Omnibus Health Services Act (S. 1963) also will direct VA to provide training and medical coverage to caregivers, to include stress counseling, if needed. The Civilian Health and Medical Program of the Department of Veterans Affairs (CHAMPVA) would be made available to caregivers who have no health insurance option.

VA also will pay lodging and meals to those who accompany severely injured veterans on long trips for VA health care evaluation and treatments. And when a caregiver needs respite, VA will pay for temporary caregiver replacements for up to 30 days a year.

Two thousands caregivers are expected to benefit from the full range of initiatives. Caregivers of veterans severely injured in earlier wars will gain access only to the more modest support services in the legislation including care training. But to hold down costs, they will not be eligible for the stipend, the new travel reimbursements and several other benefits.

The House passed the bill Wednesday and the Senate on Thursday, forwarding it to the White House for the president’s signature.

Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii), chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, endorsed House changes to the original Senate bill, passed last November, and swiftly shepherded it through final passage.

Rep. Bob Filner (D-Calif.), chairman of the House committee, said caregivers of “heroes” who returned from Iraq or Afghanistan brain-damaged or with other severe wounds have had to quit their jobs, putting financial strain on families. As voluntary caregivers, they also have received little or no training in care delivery.

The new law, he said, will provide pay “to make up for loss of income; training to the caregiver; funds for respite care and some other expenses. It’s not just the young man or woman who comes home (who is changed). It’s the whole family involved and we’ve got to help the whole family.”

Older veterans will find it refreshing, he said, to see children of women veterans, from time to time, in waiting areas of VA medical facilities.

The cost of S. 1963 will be about $750 million a year in discretionary spending, Filner said, adding less than one percent to VA’s $120 billion budget which already is to rise by 5 or 6 percent a year.

Service veterans groups were united in praise of the House-Senate compromise, though some noted the VA secretary will have considerable flexibility to set final details of the stipend program.