The Veterans Affairs Caregiver Support Program is about to lose its top official as concerns mount about delays to a planned expansion of the benefit later this year.
Department officials confirmed Tuesday that Meg Kabat, director of the program, will leave that post on April 3 “to pursue private-sector employment opportunities.” The move leaves another key leadership void at the department, although VA staff downplayed those concerns.
“The National Caregiver Support Program Office is staffed by dedicated and knowledgeable employees who will ensure the efforts Meg led continue without interruption,” Veterans Health Administration Chief of Staff Larry Connell said in a statement. “VA plans to name Meg’s replacement in the near future.”
Advocates hailed the move as a big step forward in understanding the challenges and policy improvements to help those veteran families.
Kabat, who has worked in the caregiver office for more than eight years, was praised for “positively impacting tens of thousands of veterans and their families” during her tenure at VA.
But the caregiver program has come under increasing scrutiny in recent months as officials prepare for a mandated expansion of stipends to families of veterans who served before 2001. That work was supposed to start on Oct. 1, but concerns over technology shortfalls may force a postponement.
VA officials have until that date to certify whether their new information technology system is ready to support expansion of the program. Department spokesman Curt Cashour said staff is working “to implement a new commercial-off-the-shelf IT solution” with plans for deployment in coming months.
“VA strongly supports the expansion of its caregiver program and stands ready to work with Congress to ensure that all aspects of the law are implemented,” he said.
The expansion could grant monthly stipends to more than 41,000 veteran families in coming years, more than doubling the current number of stipend recipients. Under legislation passed last summer, the department is scheduled to phase in the payouts over two years after the IT certification takes place.
Veterans groups have expressed alarm over current program operations, noting that staffing and support levels for the workload today aren’t enough.
Provisions for new community care rules and caregiver stipend expansion won't happen overnight.
Last August, an inspector general investigation found shortfalls in the program’s processing and monitoring procedures. Last month, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., expressed dismay that department officials have failed to address reports of improper dismissals from the program, even after VA Secretary Robert Wilkie promised to fix those past problems.
Earlier this month, in testimony before the Senate, Veterans of Foreign Wars Commander B.J. Lawrence warned that VA officials need to move quickly on getting those fixes in place.
“Pre-9/11 veterans should not be forced forgo the choice of staying at home with their loved ones in lieu of inpatient long-term care simply because VA is to slow to fix issues it has know about for years,” he said.
Whether Kabat’s departure effects that effort remains to be seen. Lawmakers have expressed concerns about the large number of vacancies within department leadership in recent months, including a lack of permanent appointees for the department’s deputy secretary post and top health official.