Washington, D.C. – Following her testimony before the House Veterans’ Affairs Health Subcommittee last week, today the Subcommittee unanimously passed her bill, H.R. 3989 -- the Support Our Military Caregivers Act. Congresswoman Stefanik introduced this bipartisan legislation in November of last year.
“I was proud to introduce this important legislation after meeting with a constituent from Alexandria Bay who is a caregiver facing the burden of the VA backlog,” said Congresswoman Stefanik. “Over the last 15 years of war, our servicemembers have bravely served our nation and their families have sacrificed an immeasurable amount -- so it is vital that we ensure they receive the best possible care. This is especially true for our military caregivers -- loved ones of our servicemembers who selflessly care for our heroes behind the scenes. Military caregivers are silent heroes in our communities and deserve the respect and benefits proportionate to their significant contributions.”
The Family Caregiver Program, mandated by Congress in 2010, was designed to help support family members caring for seriously-wounded veterans in the post-9/11 era. Major features of the program include providing medical support for caregivers, who often suffer from health problems as they focus on the veteran's well-being, and providing stipends to compensate caregivers' time.
This program is currently experiencing delays in approval of benefits. Caregivers who are denied eligibility for the program or believe the Veteran's rating is not appropriate may appeal such decisions with the VA Medical Centers (VAMC) with the assistance of VA Caregiver Support Coordinators.
VA officials originally estimated that approximately 4,000 family caregivers would be approved for the program by this time. However, there were 15,600 approved with another 14,800 applications remaining. This unanticipated deluge has overwhelmed staff allocated for the program, causing a backlog.
For example, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that some VA facilities were not returning caregiver phone calls. To further complicate the problem, family caregivers who have been denied program benefits are now filing appeals, leaving the VA with two issues:
- The inability to process the flood of caregiver applications; and
- An expanding backlog of appeals filed by frustrated caregivers
Whether the decisions received by appealing veterans are favorable or not, they should be timely, fair, impartial and accurate. While proposals by the VA Department will help, it appears that a substantial transformation of processes and clinical reviews are still needed to significantly reduce the amount of time veterans wait for decisions on their appeals. Immediate and effective relief is required as continued delays will only increase as the number of mounting appeals.
Congresswoman Stefanik’s bill, the Support Our Military Caregivers Act, would ensure that new or modified processes and systems are veteran-centric, outcomes-based and continually improved through the use of best practices. This would be done by directing the Department of Veterans Affairs to contract with a third party in order to streamline claims and reduce the Caregiver backlog.
During the markup, Congressman Gus Bilirakis (R-FL) offered an amendment in the nature of a substitute to strengthen the bill, confirming that the VA was the final decision making authority and that the Government Accountability Office (GAO) must conduct a second review of the program. The amendment was adopted.