VA fails to meet crucial deadline

Senior Democrats and Republicans on the veterans affairs committees have joined hands to scold the Department of Veterans Affairs over missed deadlines and restrictive language drafted for implementing new benefits for caregivers of severely wounded Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans.

In an unusual letter last week to President Obama, signed by both chairmen and ranking members of the House and Senate committees, VA is criticized for missing a Jan. 30 deadline for full implementation of the Caregivers and Veterans Omnibus Health Services Act of 2010.

The letter also charges that VA intends to limit the number of caregivers eligible for a monthly stipend and other new benefits by adding “arbitrary and stringent criteria” that Congress never meant to impose.

It’s a rare misstep for an administration that conspicuously has polished its image of support for veterans, service members and their families with both budget dollars and a high profile awareness campaign led by First Lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden, wife of the vice president.

The president signed the caregiver bill (Public Law 111-163) in May with families of severely injured veterans at his side. Yet some of those caregivers will be ineligible for the new benefits if VA’s interpretation of the law is allowed to stand, say committee leaders and advocacy groups.

The letter asks Obama to direct VA and the Office of Management and Budget to make new “interim-final” regulations effective within 60 days and to ensure that they comply with eligibility criteria Congress set in law.

The monthly stipend is to be paid to caregivers of severely injured veterans whose disabling conditions occurred or were aggravated in the line of duty on or after Sept. 11, 2001. Eligible veterans include those with traumatic brain injury, psychological trauma and other mental disorders.

The law further defines eligible vets as those needing personal care services because they can’t perform one or more independent activities of daily living or they require supervision as a result of neurological or other impairments.

VA’s draft plan, however, adds criteria including a finding by VA that “without caregiver support providing personal care services at home in an ongoing manner,” the eligible veteran “would require hospitalization, or nursing home or other institutional care.”

Caregivers and wounded warriors advocates say this change alone — but there are others — would pare the eligible veteran population from several thousand veterans to fewer than a 1,000.

There is a lot at stake here. Besides the stipend, caregivers would get travel, lodging and per diem expenses paid while receiving training to provide personal care services. Once caregivers are designated primary personal care attendants, they will receive ongoing assistance from VA including technical support, counseling and mental health services, respite care of no less than 30 days a year and health care coverage through CHAMPVA, the Civilian Health and Medical Program of VA.

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the new Senate committee chairwoman, grilled VA Secretary Eric Shinseki last week on his department’s failure to meet deadlines in law for planning and starting caregiver benefits, and for proposing to restrict eligibility more than the law requires.

VA’s implementation plan was due last November with benefits to start at the end of January this year. Now, Shinseki promises the benefits will start by summer.