$3.4B plan advanced by Senate panel dramatically expands benefits for veterans' caregivers
By EMILY WAX-THIBODEAUX | The Washington Post | Published: December 1, 2017
For 20 years, Yvonne Riley has cared for her husband, Dave, a medically retired Coast Guard rescue swimmer who became a quadruple amputee after a bacterial infection turned into sepsis two decades ago.
With three young children at home, Yvonne quit a good job to bathe him, get him in and out of his wheelchair, feed him, help him when he fell out of bed and eventually help him put on and remove his prosthetic limbs.
"To this day, she puts me together in the morning. She takes me apart at night," Riley said in a telephone interview from their family home in Semmes, Ala. "It's a full-time job. But she's never gotten paid or training."
That's because the Department of Veterans Affairs only offers stipends, training, paid breaks and other benefits to the caregivers of post-9/11 veterans through a program passed in 2010. But the Riley family and thousands of others say they are hopeful that soon will change.
A proposed $3.4 billion in federal funding over the next five years would extend caregivers' benefits to family and friends performing full-time care for veterans of all eras.
On Wednesday, the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee approved the expansion of the post-9/11 caregiver program as part of a new plan to revamp the VA's health-care system, which also is pushing for better access for veterans who want to see doctors in the private sector. If approved by the full Senate and signed into law by President Trump, the new benefits would first provide help to caregivers of veterans injured before May 1975 and then expand to include those like Riley who were hurt from May 1975 to September 2001.
That means his wife would get the latest training on how to help her husband, paid time off to take a break and a stipend to make up for all of her years of lost income.
"We just bumbled through this whole thing, and having that knowledge base of all the caregivers out there would be great. And giving her time to take a real break away," Dave Riley said, pausing as his wife interjected.
"Would be wonderful," Yvonne laughed. "I would go away for a few days. Spend some time visiting our adult kids or just regain energy with some girlfriends."
Garry Augustine, executive director of the Disabled American Veterans (DAV) Washington headquarters, called expanding the benefits, "the right thing to do," adding "you can't have certain benefits for some veterans and none for others." This has been a priority for DAV, which released a detailed report on the subject this year.
VA Secretary David Shulkin backs the plan, but its cost has caused the idea to be tabled in years past. And while it has bipartisan support, there is some concern a sweeping proposal to cut taxes could put the program on hold again.
Since 2010, a monthly stipend for family and friends who care for injured veterans is offered to those who served during the post-Sept. 11 era.
Joyce Wessel Raezer, executive director of the National Military Family Association, said that in the long run, this may be less expensive than paying for long-term nursing care.
But implementing it correctly in the already overwhelmed VA system will be complicated.
The program would include hiring hundreds of people to review requests for benefits, and involve a massive undertaking to create a network of nurses and social workers who can offer breaks for caregivers.
"After 9/11, the wounds were fresh and there were many caregivers who were losing their jobs to care for their spouses — so there was a lot of momentum," Raezer said. "We always wanted to keep the door open to find a way to expand this. Everyone agrees it should be done. It's just finding the money."
But Riley, who formerly served as an elected national commander of DAV, estimates that if he had to go into assisted care it might end up costing the government even more.
"We are gonna have a steady drumbeat for this," said Riley, who will come with his wife to Washington next week to support the issue. "And I'm hopeful. We realize it's a lot of money. But it's also going to help a lot of veteran families."