Hundreds of Veterans Left Caregiver Program after Being Expelled
Several minutes into Eric Benson's interview with the Department of Veterans Affairs, a former Army officer who suffered a head injury in Iraq, he began to unravel.
His wife Caira says Benson can keep his cognitive activity going for a half-hour. But at the 30-minute mark of their lengthy interview, Benson "doubled over and started drooling on himself."
The session discussed eligibility for the VA's family caregiver program, an initiative launched in 2011 to provide financial assistance to family members who support veterans with varying degrees of disability.
During a hearing before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee on Wednesday, attorney Caira Benson said, "The program should have been a blessing, but it's become unpredictable, stressful and, frankly, dehumanizing." The in-depth assessments are demoralizing."
Family caregivers, the family has been on the Program of Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers since 2017, but have just been downgraded to the lowest tier of assistance, even though three doctors have said Eric shouldn't be left alone.
Like many others, they do not plan to appeal.
At the hearing, Steve Schwab, CEO of the Elizabeth Dole Foundation, said, "The appeals process exists for a reason. People aren't appealing because they're exhausted.".
As a result of the reassessments of 19.000 program participants begun in October, a substantial number of veterans have been discharged or downgraded to a lower level of compensation.
There is no way to know how many of them. Denis McDonough said Tuesday extra veterans are being discharged from the program than predicted because of assessments to determine if they meet eligibility requirements.
Military.com requested the exact number of those kicked out repeatedly, but VA officials refused.
It is certainly true that this number was significant enough to prompt the VA to suspend the discharge process while it conducts a review of the new eligibility criteria it has been applying. We know, by the way, that just 13% of those who appeal their decisions win.
There's a problem with the process. It's not working. It's not the way anybody intended. We've got to do this together," said Jim Marszalek, national service director for Disabled American Veterans.
Caregivers who help veterans get $1,750 a month to more than $3000 a month depending on the level of care they need.
Participants in the program are also covered by health insurance.
VA program director Colleen Richardson says the VA plans to wrap up the reassessments of program participants this month, though no discharges will take place while the VA reviews the program.
Due to the suspension, participants who have been discharged or downgraded will continue to receive stipends at their current level through March 2023.
Veterans Affairs will re-contact legacy participants to let them know their discharges are on hold while the review is done.
During the hearing Wednesday, Richardson said, "be assured that we'll make sure it is equitable and fair for all veterans as we move forward in the process."
Veterans from previous wars are now eligible for the VA mission act, which expanded eligibility for family caregivers. This program was first made available to veterans who served during World War II through the Vietnam War in October 2017 and extended to veterans serving after May 1975 and until September 2001 this year.
In the meantime, the VA has just published stricter eligibility criteria that focus on whether a veteran needs ongoing supervision or instruction for things like eating and grooming.
Due to those changes, the VA began an analysis of post-9/11 veteran participant cases.
However, advocates say the assessments are inconsistent, with reviewers seeking "how do I get to a 'no' rather than how do I get to a 'yes.'"
"It's unbelievable the inconsistent experiences that caregivers have faced across the country," Schwab said.
It was cited in the two previous suspensions - in 2017 and 2018, which led to changes in the program, including a directive for medical centers to fix any inconsistencies.
As the VA's chief nursing officer and assistant undersecretary for health, patients care services, Beth Taylor testified that the VA has made significant changes that have resulted in consistency and standardization throughout its system, with just "three facilities which are outliers.".
However, advocacy groups see things very differently.
“It appears there are far too many examples ... that point to some serious root causes, and we believe this may be because 160 of the facilities are implementing this program in different ways.”
Changing eligibility could affect thousands of veterans who applied for the program but were denied. Rep. Jon Tester, a Democrat from Montana who chairs the committee, asked whether those vets would have to reapply if new criteria are developed.
Considering that the discharge suspension and review were just announced the day prior to the hearing, Richardson clarified that there would be "more to come.".
As of yesterday, we haven't figured out exactly what we're going to do," Richardson said.
At the hearing of the committee, Sarah Verardo, the CEO of the Independence Fund and the caregiver of her husband, Mike, an amputee suffering burns to over 30% of his body, stated that her family recently learned that they would be dropped down to the lowest tier in the program.
Senator Sheindlin pleaded with lawmakers for help - not only so the veterans can keep their old benefits, but also so hours-long assessments don't force patients to detail their injuries and disabilities a second time, even though they're documented.