Veterans Affairs officials will suspend all annual reassessments of families in their caregiver stipend program, citing continued work into revising rules and policies associated with the benefit.
The move comes after months of controversy over the Program of Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers, which provides monthly financial support to about 33,000 veterans in need of full-time at-home care.
VA officials also repeated their promise not to discharge or reduce stipends for any families based on earlier reassessments.
Currently the program is open only to veterans who served after 2001 or before 1976, but it is scheduled to expand it to all veterans this fall. In preparation for that, officials last year began a review of all existing post-9/11 veteran participants to ensure they still qualified for the stipend under amended rules.
In March, in response to complaints from families about the process, VA leadership acknowledged that roughly 90% of families who underwent the reviews were scheduled to be booted from the program based on decisions by administrators. That would have dropped almost half of all current families from the program.
VA Secretary Denis McDonough responded by suspending plans to remove any families from the program and promising to develop new eligibility criteria that is more flexible and less punitive for families.
The stipends — awarded to veterans with service-connected injuries that limit their ability to live independently — vary based on where veterans live, but generally hover around $3,000 a month for the most severely wounded individuals and $1,800 for others in need of around-the-clock care.
Advocates have said that losing the stipend could force infirm veterans and their families into financial distress, since many spouses and parents cannot work full-time and care for their loved ones.
McDonough’s announcement in March was met with praise from families, but the reassessments continued in the following weeks, causing confusion among families about whether the promise not to process out participants was still in effect.
In addition, several groups reported families had received notices that they could still be kicked out of the program in coming months.
Thursday’s announcement ends those reviews. In a statement, VA Deputy Secretary Donald Remy said the move was made to ensure that veterans and their families were not being hurt by the process.
“Although we’ve come a long way in supporting caregivers, we have much more work to do,” he said. “In our effort to uphold our sacred obligation to families of veterans, VA continues its review of PCAFC to ensure department requirements and procedures meet the needs of caregivers and veterans participating in the program.”
No timeline has been announced for when that review will be complete.
VA officials said caregiver support staff will continue to initiate reassessments for veterans and family caregivers for some purposes, such as when they request to be considered for an increase in stipend levels or if there is evidence of an increased need for personal care services.
And staff will continue to conduct “wellness visits” to ensure that veterans are receiving the care needed to address their medical needs.
In a statement to program participants, officials wrote that they are “listening to concerns and working diligently to address them as we continue to ensure veterans and their caregivers get the support they need and deserve.”
The program expansion is scheduled to go into effect on Oct. 1.
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.