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Trump donates 1st quarter salary to VA caregivers program

Acting Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie speaks during a press briefing at the White House May 17, 2018, in Washington, D.C. President Donald Trump donated his quarterly salary to the Department of Veterans' Affairs.

OLIVIER DOULIERY/ABACA PRESS/TNS

By NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPES Published: May 17, 2018

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump donated his salary from the first quarter of 2018 to the Department of Veterans Affairs for a program that benefits veteran caregivers.

White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee-Sanders handed a check for $100,000 to acting VA Secretary Robert Wilkie on Thursday during a news briefing. Trump had made a campaign pledge to donate his salary, and in addition to the VA, he’s given checks to the National Park Service and the departments of Transportation, Education and Health and Human Services.

“The president’s gift underscores his promise to do all that he can for veterans, which includes supporting those who care for our veterans -- not just those of us at VA, but the husbands, wives and community caregivers who are out there, day in and day out, making life easier for those who have borne the battle,” Wilkie said.

Wilkie said the donation was earmarked for the VA Caregiver Support Program, which provides monthly stipends, medical training and access to other services, such as mental health counseling, to caregivers for veterans.

The program has come under scrutiny in the past year, after it was discovered VA medical centers were dropping families from it and not consistently applying eligibility criteria.

The agency launched a review of the program in April 2017 and ordered VA hospitals to temporarily stop removing families. Since then, the VA said it has improved training for its staff and would improve communication with veterans and their caregivers.

Last month, two senators who are still concerned about the program wrote to Wilkie, asking that he report back about how it has been improved. Sens. Robert Casey, D-Penn., and Dean Heller, R-Nev., also asked the VA reconsider old cases of families dropped from the caregiver program prior to the agency’s April 2017 review.

“We believe re-evaluating these discharges and rectifying any potentially incorrect or inconsistent discharge decisions is essential to furthering the agency’s commitment to… improve caregivers’ and veterans’ confidence in the program,” Casey and Heller wrote.

The caregivers program could soon undergo major changes based on legislation making its way through Congress. The VA Mission Act, which the House approved Wednesday, includes a measure to extend benefits to more caregivers.

The program applies only to family members of veterans injured after the 9/11 terrorist attacks – something many advocates have described as an unfair discrepancy.

Under the Mission Act, benefits would become immediately available to caregivers of veterans injured before May 7, 1975. Two years after the bill is enacted, veterans injured between 1975 and 2001 would be eligible.

The extension is expected to add tens of thousands of veteran caregivers to the program and cost $6.7 billion from 2019 to 2023, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

Wilkie and Trump are supportive of the bill and want Congress to approve it before Memorial Day, which is May 28.

“This opens up the caregiver program to long-waiting communities within our veterans world, those veterans from World War II, Korea and the Gulf War who have not had access to a community caregiver program,” Wilkie said.

Thursday marked the first time Wilkie, who has served as VA secretary for 50 days, addressed reporters at the White House. He said he was “deeply, deeply grateful… for the opportunity to serve America’s veterans.”
White House physician Ronny Jackson, Trump’s pick to serve as permanent VA secretary, withdrew from consideration last month. Trump has not yet named a new nominee.

wentling.nikki@stripes.com
Twitter: @nikkiwentling

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