WASHINGTON — Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki apologized Thursday for delays in the new caregivers benefits plan, pledging that families of wounded troops remain a top priority for the department.

Under legislation passed last year, the VA was mandated to begin awarding caregiver benefits — living stipends, medical training, and counseling support — to select families of wounded Iraq and Afghanistan veterans by Jan. 31. However, that deadline passed without officials even presenting basic details of how the program would be administered.

When those details were released last week, veterans groups criticized the department’s narrow interpretation of the rules, which as written now would not cover many families caring for troops with traumatic brain injuries.

Shinseki, testifying before the House Veterans Affairs Committee, said the department’s 2012 budget request includes about $208 million in funding for the caregiver benefits, and the rules as written now would cover caregivers for about 840 recently wounded troops.

However, the secretary called that proposal a “starting point.”

“That is still subject to review, and we’re moving as fast as we can on this,” he told lawmakers. “We’re trying to get this right.”

The department already pays similar caregiver stipends to wounded troops from prior wars through its Aid and Attendance program and Housebound Veterans benefits rules. But both of those initiatives award extra money to the veteran, not directly to family members caring for them.

The new caregivers benefits would give living stipends and specialized training directly to those caregivers. Shinseki said at least part of the delay in implementing the program was lawmakers’ decision not to allow the department to simply expand the existing programs, instead opting for the more direct help to family members.

But he also acknowledged that even with that complication, department officials should have acted more quickly.

Critics of the department, who had hoped the new program would cover about 3,000 families of recently wounded troops, have said with the current timeline they doubt that the department will start paying out the new caregiver stipends before the end of the year.

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