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

Three days later, Michelle Obama appeared on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" to discuss what the administration has done for military families and what else it plans to do.

"I was a little shocked," Schei said of the talk show appearance. "They're talking about all these programs they are going to do, but they can't even comply with this law."

Under the caregivers act, those caring for the most severely wounded veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars qualify for a host of new benefits, including counseling, health-care training, respite care for up to 30 days a year, and a monthly stipend determined on a case-by-case basis.

Such aid has traditionally been channeled through veterans, but the measure for the first time gives the benefits directly to the primary caregiver. Among Veterans Affairs' chief goals in designing the program is to encourage home care for wounded veterans, rather than institutionalization, whenever possible.

The Congressional Budget Office estimated the five-year cost at $6.7 billion, although no money has yet been allocated. About 3,500 veterans and their caregivers were originally estimated to qualify for the benefits.

But, as the regulations have been drawn up for the act, the eligibility requirements have been tightened, according to congressional leaders who have been briefed on the program.

Sen. Patty Murray, the Washington state Democrat who chairs the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, was one of 17 senators from both parties to sign a letter to the administration this month calling for an end to the delays. The demand came after VA missed a November deadline to update the committee on the legislation's implementation.

After being briefed by VA officials last week, Murray issued a statement expressing concern that the draft eligibility criteria "would seriously limit the access to the benefit" from the 3,500 veterans originally projected to qualify.

An aide from Murray's office said the parameters would limit benefits to those caring for veterans so severely injured that they would otherwise have to be placed in a hospital, nursing home or other assisted-living facility.

In her statement, Roberts, the VA spokeswoman, said, "VA recognizes the obligation to make sure the criteria are clinically workable, and follow the requirements of the law."

Veterans groups have worked with the administration on the act, but even those most sympathetic to VA's challenges are running out of patience.

Joe Violante, legislative director of the advocacy group Disabled American Veterans, said that establishing benefit guidelines is "creating a logistical nightmare for the VA" and that budgetary concerns are complicating the process.

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