Caregivers of wounded troops still waiting for benefits signed into law by Obama

Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 14, 2011; 12:29 AM

Nine months after President Obama authorized a broad expansion of benefits for those caring for service members severely wounded in the nation's two current wars, none of the assistance has materialized and it is caught up in a bureaucratic tangle that could shrink the number of families eligible for the help.

Obama made care for military veterans and their families a priority in his role as commander in chief, and in May he signed into law a measure that for the first time would give cash assistance, counseling and fill-in help known as "respite care" to people overseeing the convalescence of wounded troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

As veterans and their families looked on during a White House signing ceremony, Obama called the Caregivers and Veterans Omnibus Health Services Act a "major step forward in America's commitment to families and caregivers who tend to our wounded warriors every day."

But the Department of Veterans Affairs has since missed the Jan. 31 deadline for fully implementing the program, leaving the families of wounded troops to wonder when the promised help will arrive.

"We were really excited that somebody was taking us seriously and finally understanding the sacrifices we are making," Christine Schei said. She left her job several years ago to care for her son, Erik, who was rendered helpless by a sniper's bullet in Iraq. "We were counting down to the end of January to begin receiving these benefits. Now it looks like they haven't even begun."

The delays appear to be, in part, the result of an overly optimistic assessment of how long it would take to get the complex program up and running.

Veterans Affairs officials say designing the law has involved months of consulting with veterans groups, congressional leaders, families and others, and that some progress has been made. But determining who qualifies for the new benefits - including whether veterans of pre-Sept. 11, 2001, wars should be eligible for all of them - has been a complicated, politically fraught process.

In a statement, the department's spokeswoman, Katie Roberts, said, "VA looks forward to continue to work with our stakeholders as we enter the implementation stage of this new legislation."

"While some services will be available right away, the others will take thoughtful, deliberate work to make sure the caregivers of our most vulnerable veterans have access to all additional services," Roberts said.

Obamas trumpet benefits

Veterans groups, frustrated by the delays, acknowledge that starting a new benefits program takes time. But they also criticize the administration for not moving faster given the public emphasis the president and the first lady have continued to place on veterans issues.

A week before the Jan. 31 deadline for the caregivers act, the president was joined by Michelle Obama and Jill Biden, the vice president's wife, in the East Room of the White House for an event called "Strengthening our Military Families."

Addressing the audience, Obama said that "as commander in chief, I am determined to do everything in my power to make sure that we are fulfilling that request from our troops, that we are taking care of their families," citing "more help for those tireless caregivers" among the "major investments" he has made.

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