WASHINGTON (AP) - A long-awaited plan to give caregivers of severely wounded Iraq and Afghanistan veterans some extra help was unveiled Wednesday by the Veterans Affairs Department with few specifics about when it would be fully implemented and potentially fewer families reaping the benefit than expected.
Sarah Wade, who along with her veteran husband, Ted, joined President Barack Obama on May 5 when he signed the law that instructed the VA to provide more support to family caregivers of those hurt in the recent conflicts, is among those wondering whether she will qualify for the extra support. And, if so, when.
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.
She said she'll be watching closely to see how the VA's proposal is written and interpreted.
"If he doesn't qualify, I'm going to be devastated," said Wade, 36, of Chapel Hill, N.C. She said there are very few long-term care options for her husband except for going into an institution. "Year after year after year, I've heard about being patient and how we weren't prepared and we're trying to create programs and we're trying to create benefits. It's been one empty promise for years."
Among the benefits included in the law was a monthly stipend based on average home health aide costs in a veteran's hometown. The law also includes health insurance and mental health help for caregivers. The law for the first time instructed the VA to provide help directly to a veteran's family members.
Under the plan, caregivers for about 10 percent of the critically wounded from the recent conflicts would be eligible, an estimated 850 veterans, said Katie Roberts, a VA spokeswoman.
But Sen. Patty Murray, chairwoman of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, said in a statement that the way Congress had written the law, about 3,500 veterans should have a family member who is an eligible.
"Unfortunately the plan they put forward today is simply not good enough. The VA outlined how they intended to limit this benefit to an even smaller group of caregivers than intended by Congress, which is unacceptable," Murray, D-Wash., said.
Roberts said the VA and Congress were "engaging in conversation about the appropriate approach on eligibility" and the VA "recognizes the obligation to make sure the criteria are clinically workable and follow the requirements of the law."
The VA rolled out the plan under pressure from Murray and some veterans' service organizations frustrated by the VA's pace. The law was supposed to be implemented by the end of January.
Roberts said the VA will be working with them and others in the veterans' community to make it happen, but she didn't offer a timeline.
"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.
Jeremy Chwat, a spokesman for the Wounded Warrior Project that lobbied for the law, said the lack of information about when the services will be available is unacceptable.
"By VA's own admission the regulatory process is going to be long and the caregivers who have already waited so long are now being told by this administration to wait even longer," Chwat said.
While the enhanced benefits are for the caregivers of the severely disabled veterans from the recent conflicts, the VA said it is improving other existing programs for caregivers of veterans from all eras. It named a caregiver coordinator at each of its medical centers and last week rolled out a caregiver support hotline, which has already received more than 700 calls.
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.
The goal is to keep veterans out of nursing homes, said Deborah Amdur, chief consultant for VA social work.
"We know that being able to remain in your home surrounded by family and friends, people do better," Amdur said. "There's no question about that."
VA website for caregivers: http://www.caregiver.va.gov