WASHINGTON (AP) - The Veterans Affairs Department 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 severely wounded veterans.
But the announcement didn't satisfy senators unhappy about how many families will be helped.
President Barack 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 the veterans out of nursing homes. But the VA missed a Jan. 31 deadline for implementation. And The Associated Press reported last month that when the VA did announce its plans to help these caregivers soon after, it helped fewer families than had been intended by Congress.
Even Sarah Wade, who along with her veteran husband, Ted, joined Obama when he signed the law was among those whose families were unlikely to be included in the benefit. 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. Sarah Wade now takes care of him. It's unclear whether his injuries are severe enough to qualify for the caregiver aid.
Veterans' groups and members of Congress said the effort helped too few families and lacked a timeline for implementation.
The VA submitted paperwork this week saying it is putting into place 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, chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, and Richard Burr, the committee's ranking Republican, said during a hearing Wednesday they were far from satisfied with the VA's efforts on how many families will likely be helped.
"We wrote it in a way that was pretty clear," said Burr, of North Carolina. He later added, "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 seems Ted Wade, of Chapel Hill, N.C., is being punished because he has a wife to take care of him to keep him out of an institution. He said this is the type of family the law was intended to help.
In response, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki told committee members the rollout of the caregivers plan has taken longer than he anticipated, and he wasn't happy about that. But, he said 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 a veteran's family member, he said the VA has had to work through the complexities of it and has an obligation to correctly handle it.
"That means meeting the requirements of the law and also making sure those VA employees on the frontlines caring for our veterans have a clear and consistent set of guidelines," Shinseki said. "It's been a challenging exercise."
After the hearing, Murray, from Washington state, said she wasn't satisfied with the VA accelerating the plan because it should not have been late in the first place. She will be watching to see what Shinseki does for caregivers.
"I will not be satisfied until they meet the requirements of the legislation," Murray said. "I'm going to hold his feet to the fire. He said he would work with us on this, and that's exactly what we expect them to do."
A VA spokeswoman has said caregivers for about 10 percent of the critically wounded from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars would be eligible, an estimated 850 veterans. But Murray 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.
While the enhanced benefits are for the caregivers of the severely disabled veterans from the recent conflicts, the VA has said it is improving other existing programs for caregivers of veterans from all eras.
Veterans' service organizations had pushed for more support for all caregivers of veterans, but Congress was not able to come up with enough money to do so. Under the law, the VA must report to Congress within two years about the possibility of providing the enhanced benefits to all caregivers.