VA promises benefits

By Kimberly Hefling
Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Department of Veterans Affairs said Wednesday that help is on its way as early as this summer for family members of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who have been waiting for a long-delayed program to help care for the severely wounded.

But the announcement didn't satisfy senators unhappy about how many families will be helped.

President Obama on May 5 signed a law instructing the VA to provide a monthly stipend, health insurance, mental health help and other aid directly to caregivers to help keep wounded veterans out of nursing homes. But the VA missed a Jan. 31 deadline for implementation. And the Associated Press reported last month that while the VA did announce plans soon after that to help caregivers, aid was available to fewer families than Congress intended.

A VA spokeswoman has said caregivers for about 10 percent of those who were critically wounded in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars would be eligible, an estimated 850 veterans. But a senator has said previously in a statement that the way Congress had written the law, about 3,500 veterans should have a family member who is eligible.

Sarah Wade, who was present along with her husband when Obama signed the bill, was among those whose families might not qualify for the benefit. Her husband, Ted Wade, 33, lost his right arm and sustained a traumatic brain injury in a roadside bombing in Iraq in 2004 while serving with the 82nd Airborne Division. His wife takes care of him, but it's unclear whether his injuries are severe enough to make her eligible for the VA aid.

Veterans' groups and members of Congress have said the effort helps too few families and lacks a timeline for implementation. The VA submitted paperwork this week saying it has a temporary plan to help the caregivers while it continues with the government's rule-making process.

"We believe that with this accelerated procedure, these unprecedented new direct-to-caregiver benefits can be fully in place as early as this summer," VA officials say in a factsheet.

But Sens. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, and Richard Burr (R-N.C.), the committee's ranking member, said during a hearing Wednesday that they were far from satisfied with the VA's efforts and that not enough people would get the aid.

"We wrote [the law] in a way that was pretty clear," Burr said, later adding, "If you insist on moving this as currently written, it will be one hell of a fight."

Using the example of the Wades, Burr said it appears that Ted Wade is being punished because his wife can care for him at home, keeping him out of an institution but in effect disqualifying her from the benefit. He said the Burrs are the type of family the law was intended to assist.

VA Secretary Eric Shinseki conceded to committee members that the rollout of the plan has taken longer than he anticipated, and said that he isn't happy about that.

But he added that the VA is open to taking suggestions from Congress and veterans about how to draw the line about who qualifies. Because it's the first time the VA has provided such benefits directly to family members of veterans, he said the department has had to work through the "complexities" of it.

"We have an obligation to get this right," Shinseki said.

- Associated Press

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