President Joe Biden this week signed a new executive order promising to expand caregiver services for veterans, but some advocates say the move does not clear up uncertainty surrounding Veterans Affairs’ long-term support for those families.
During a White House ceremony on April 18, Biden said the new order on caregiver services included 50 separate actions by federal agencies designed to aid “childcare workers, nurses, home care workers and family caregivers.”
Nationwide, an estimated 5.5 million individuals are providing caregiver services to injured service members and veterans, often giving up their own careers to provide around-the-clock medical and emotional support. Biden said his new order would “cut red tape and give veterans who need assistance at home more flexibility to pick their own caregivers.”
It also includes instructions for VA to develop a pilot program to provide psychotherapy support via video telehealth for caregivers of seriously ill or injured veterans. In a statement, VA officials said the moves are already underway at the department, and the new order would help strengthen and improve the Program of Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers.
Steve Schwab, CEO of the Elizabeth Dole Foundation — an influential policy voice on veterans caregiver issues — said the executive actions “have the potential to provide relief in some of the areas of greatest need for military caregivers,” including expanded respite care services, better mental health support and improved financial support for veterans in need.
But the moves do not include a new timeline for new rules regarding VA caregiver support eligibility, an issue that has been looming over the program for more than a year.
The program provides stipends to family members of some veterans with service-connected injuries that limit their ability to live independently. The payouts generally hover around $3,000 a month for the most severely wounded individuals, and about $1,800 for others with less catastrophic injuries.
About 30,000 families receive benefits through the program. Last March, amid a review of participant eligibility that threatened to change benefits for up to 90% of enrolled veterans, VA Secretary Denis McDonough announced a halt to any dismissals from the program and vowed to rewrite program rules.
Last September, with details of those looming changes still unclear, department leaders announced that “legacy” participants of the VA caregiver program would remain eligible for benefits through September 2025, except in select cases such as fraud or caregiver changes.
Following the White House announcement, VA Press Secretary Terrence Hayes said that the ongoing caregiver program review is “coming to a conclusion” and “based on the outcome of [that] review, we will determine whether proposed changes through rule-making are necessary.”
The executive order instructs VA officials to “consider” making those decisions by the end of the current fiscal year, on Sept. 30.
Holly Ferrell, executive director of Veteran Warriors — whose members include more than 3,500 caregivers in the VA program — said the continued questions about that review overshadow the potential benefits of the new presidential order.
“These services are either starting to expand or are slated for expansion,” she said. But caregivers she speaks with are less concerned with improvements to the program than with wholesale eligibility changes in the future that could boot them from receiving any support.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.