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

By Scott Wilson
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.

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.

"It's tough," he said. "But you would have hoped that this would have been resolved a while back. There's been time, they were given a deadline, and they didn't meet it."

Violante also said the standards being shown to Murray and other congressional leaders may be "too restrictive." He said he would also like the stipend and respite care to be made available to caregivers of veterans wounded in previous wars, a move that would significantly raise the cost of the program.

'Sense of urgency' gone

Steve Nardizzi, executive director of the Wounded Warrior Project, said the "sense of urgency" Obama expressed has evaporated.

"One of the most disheartening things for these families is the continuing promises and the press spin with the lack of any benefits passing on," Nardizzi said, citing the recent White House event and the first lady's "Oprah" appearance. "Now we could be looking at months, if not a year, while these families continue to wait."

Among the elements of the legislation that VA has put in place is a toll-free hotline that caregivers can use to solicit support. But it has become another frustration for people such as Schei, who was told when she called the hotline last week, to find out when the new benefits would be available, that VA did not know and that she could not yet apply.

On Oct. 26, 2005, her son, Erik, was shot through the brain by a sniper in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, where he was serving his second tour. That began his journey through a series of military hospitals and finally to his family home just outside Albuquerque, where Schei and her husband, Gordon, have raised three children.

Schei quit her job with a telecommunications company to care for Erik, whose younger brother, Deven, was wounded in Afghanistan, though less severely. Gordon also traded his high-paying security job at a casino two hours away for one closer to home because Erik, who only now is beginning to speak again, cannot be left unattended.

Christine Schei's day entails bathing Erik, changing his diaper, caring for his injuries and getting him to medical appointments. She is 49 years old.

She has counted on the 30 days of respite care to give herself some time away from the emotionally draining work. Without a second income, the stipend, estimated to average about $2,350 a month, would help patch the hole in her family's finances.

"We love our children, and putting him in a nursing home was never an option," Schei said. "We're just one family. There are hundreds of us out there, thousands who need this desperately."

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