U.S. Senators Gary Peters (D-MI) and Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) today introduced legislation to improve the Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) caregiver program.
According to recent reports, caregivers and veterans have been arbitrarily discharged or downgraded from the program, with benefits subsequently revoked or reduced. The VA Office of the Inspector General reported in 2018 that VA failed to adequately manage the caregiver program and recommended improvements and reforms.
This bipartisan effort would take a number of steps to give caregivers and veterans an opportunity to appeal any downgrade or termination of benefits and ensure all caregivers are recognized as part of the clinical team attending to veterans.
“Veterans and their families have sacrificed so much for our country, and we must ensure they have the quality care and support they deserve,” said Senator Peters, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and former Lt. Commander in the U.S. Navy Reserve. “Caregivers often provide home health care for severely injured veterans every day, and issues with the VA’s program must be addressed so that caregivers can be involved in important decisions impacting the well-being and health of these veterans. I’m proud to lead this bipartisan effort to ensure caregivers are treated fairly and make sure the VA is held accountable.”
“Strong communication between our veterans’ caregivers and their providers should be complemented by thorough information in their medical records that reflects caregiver participation,” said Senator Blackburn. “The Department of Veterans Affairs exists to serve those who served our country. It is vitally important we give it the much-needed tools to be successful in that aim.”
The VA provides stipends and support to caregivers for wounded veterans. To be eligible for the program, veterans must have sustained or aggravated a serious injury in the line of duty on or after September 11, 2001 and need personal care services for supervision and protection to help them with daily living activities.
Caregivers can include family members or other members of the veteran’s support group that regularly help veterans recovering from injuries. Unfortunately, caregivers and veterans have reported being dropped from the program – often with little explanation or time to appeal the decision.
The Transparency and Effective Accountability Measures for (TEAM) Veteran Caregivers Act takes a number of steps to improve the program, including:
-Ensuring all caregivers are included in the veterans’ medical records. Currently, only certain caregivers participating in the Caregiver Support Program are included in veterans’ medical records. Including all caregivers in medical records strengthens communication between VA and caregivers and recognizes them as part of the clinical team.
-Establishing a minimum standard of information in downgrade notification letters. This bill would require VA to provide additional context and explanation leading to downgrade or termination decisions. Caregivers have reported that their decision letters are sometimes missing important information that would be necessary to file an appeal.
-Extending benefits for at least 90 days after a termination letter is sent for cases where a veteran is deemed “no longer clinically eligible” for the program. Caregivers have reported being dropped within a couple weeks of receiving a termination letter and have no time to appeal or make new accommodations. This codifies the VA’s goals of maintaining care.
“Family caregivers are the unsung heroes for thousands of severely injured veterans, but mismanagement of the VA’s Program of Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers has, in far too many instances, caused the improper disruption or termination of needed benefits. As a longtime advocate for improvement of this critical program, DAV supports the TEAM Veteran Caregivers Act to fully incorporate family caregivers within the veteran’s care team, help establish clear standards for VA decision making and provide a smoother transition for veterans and family caregivers along the program’s continuum of care,” said DAV National Legislative Director Joy Ilem. “We applaud Senators Peters and Blackburn for their commitment to America’s disabled veterans and those dedicated family members who sacrifice so much of themselves help care for them.”
“MOAA members and veterans and their caregivers care passionately about VA health care and understand the importance of the multitude of programs and services needed to help veterans lead full and productive lives,” said retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Dana Atkins, president and CEO of the Military Officers Association of America. “MOAA has worked hard for almost a decade with other veteran and military groups and advocates to help VA improve its caregiver programs and communications with those in need of these important services The provisions in this bipartisan bill, the TEAM (Transparency and Effective Accountability Measures for) Veteran Caregivers Act, cosponsored by Senators Gary Peters (D-Mich.) and Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), are long overdue and necessary to help rebuild trust and confidence between those most vulnerable and in need of health care services and the VA health care system charged with meeting their needs. We are confident they will provide much-needed peace of mind to veterans and their family caregivers.”
“Since the inception of VA’s Program of Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers, the Paralyzed Veterans of America has worked to ensure that the program meets the needs of catastrophically disabled veterans,” said Heather Ansley, Associate Executive Director for Government Relations, Paralyzed Veterans of America. “As VA prepares to roll-out the expansion of the program to veterans of all eras, this bill will help ensure that adequate controls are in place to govern what VA must consider before downgrading or terminating a veteran’s participation in the program. PVA applauds introduction of this important measure, and urges its swift passage.”
Peters has long supported efforts in Congress to expand veterans’ services and support our servicemembers. Most recently, he secured a commitment from now-Defense Secretary Mark Esper to implement Peters’ bipartisan legislation to help veterans who may have been erroneously given a less than honorable discharge from the military due to negative behavior resulting from mental traumas such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI).
Last month, the Senate passed the national defense bill including numerous bipartisan provisions Peters led or supported, including a 3.1% pay raise for servicemembers, addressing issues with privatized military housing and addressing the PFAS crisis that has affected too many servicemembers and their families. Peters also helped introduce a bipartisan bill to help reserve component members of the United States Armed Forces – including members of the Reserves and National Guard – receive the benefits they have earned following their retirement or completion of service.