Veterans advocates see progress in fight for caregiver benefits

by Stars and Stripes, Nikki Wenling

WASHINGTON – Some veterans organizations on Wednesday urged lawmakers to pass legislative reforms for the Department of Veterans Affairs that include a mandate to expand caregiver benefits to veterans injured before 9/11 – a group that isn’t eligible now.

Disabled American Veterans, the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars and Paralyzed Veterans of America went to the Capitol and presented lawmakers with a printed petition, which stood several feet high and contained more than 182,000 signatures from people supportive of the expansion.

“We now maybe see a finish line, but it has to get done,” said Carl Blake, interim director of Paralyzed Veterans of America. “It’s not acceptable to wrangle over this any longer. Get it done. That’s our call to the Senate and the House.”

Benefits such as monthly stipends, health insurance and medical training to family caregivers and access to home health aides is now available only to post-9/11 veterans through a caregiver program implemented in 2010.

An expansion of the benefits to all veterans is tucked inside a larger, $54 billion Senate bill to overhaul the VA Choice program, which regulates when veterans can go into the private sector for medical treatment.

Under the bill – titled the Caring for our Veterans Act of 2017 – caregiver benefits would become immediately available to veterans injured before May 7, 1975. Two years after the bill is enacted, veterans injured between 1975 and 2001 would be eligible.

The Congressional Budget Office estimated the expansion would cost $3.4 billion for five years.

The Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee advanced the bill to the Senate floor last week.

Lawmakers present Wednesday celebrated the inclusion of the expansion into the larger bill but acknowledged the debate wasn’t over. It’s uncertain when Senate leaders might schedule a vote on the bill. And while the expansion is part of one Senate bill, it’s not included in two other bills under consideration to reform the Choice program.

“We have hundreds of thousands of veterans and caregivers weighing in. We cannot rest easy until our efforts to expand support for caregivers comes to fruition,” said Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., the ranking Democrat on the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee. “Republicans, Democrats and Independents must continue to work together to get this legislation signed into law.”

VA Secretary David Shulkin asked lawmakers Wednesday to reach a consensus on Choice reform in the remaining seven days before Congress recesses Dec. 15.

“While a limited number of legislative days remain on the calendar, we are hopeful that both the Senate and House can reach agreement on a bill before the end of the session,” Shulkin said in a written statement. “As we have made clear for many months, Congress needs to pass a bill this year to help our veterans get the care they need.”

Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, said cost would be a sticking point in House negotiations and indicated the debate in that chamber might not occur until 2018.

“We need to make the case of why we need to pay for this,” he said. “I think we all know we need to get through the end of the year and then come back and figure out where that’s going to come from.”

Walz went on to say that he took the message from veterans organizations Wednesday as a “mission order.”

“It does have to be done,” he said. “There’s a gratefulness that in 2010 we got support for post-9/11 veterans, but I get calls every day of, ‘Why not us?'”