Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough on Friday promised a renewed commitment to caregivers of injured and elderly veterans, to include improving support services for families struggling to care for their loved ones.

“I know that at times throughout VA’s history, caregivers have been overlooked or not included or not appreciated for the back-breaking work that you do,” McDonough said during remarks at the annual Elizabeth Dole Foundation conference.

“I’m here today to say to any caregiver, those days are over. We see you. We will do everything in our power to support you … not just because it’s the right thing to do, but also because supporting caregivers improves outcomes for veterans.”

The comments come roughly a month after the department announced plans for a full review of the Program of Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers, a move that could take away monthly support stipends for thousands of caretakers who no longer qualify for the benefit.

Department officials have promised that no families will see reductions in stipends before fall 2022, and families being booted from the program won’t lose their benefits until early 2023.

VA officials are also scheduled to expand eligibility for the program next fall, to allow caregivers of veterans from any era to apply. Currently, the stipends are available only to family members of veterans who served before May 7, 1975, or after Sept. 11, 2001.

Monthly stipends are based on federal locality pay rules where veterans live. For a veteran living in Phoenix, for example, the caregiver of a veteran unable to live without full-time assistance would receive about $2,700 a month, and a caregiver of a veteran who needs only partial help would receive about $1,700 a month.

McDonough said in his remarks Friday that the final phase of the stipend expansion is on track, but the department is also looking for ways to improve support services for families who may not qualify.

“We have dedicated staff at every VA Medical Center ready to meet with caregivers to help identify their veterans’ needs and come up with a plan to address them,” he said. “And that also means access to health care [for caregivers] … by improving caregiver outcomes, we improve veteran outcomes too.”

The secretary also noted efforts during the height of the coronavirus pandemic to get medical equipment safely to veterans being cared for at home, and the push by the administration to get caregivers’ vaccines at the same time as their veterans.

But, he told conference viewers, “we need to continue to do better for veterans and caregivers.”

Advocates have said they will closely monitor that pledge, especially as the deadlines on VA’s caregivers program approach next year. About 33,000 individuals are currently participating in the program, but officials have estimated that number could double in coming years as the program eligibility is expanded.

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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