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What’s the Latest on the VA’s Overhaul of the Application Process for Caregiver Benefits?

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Veterans Affairs officials are overhauling their application process for caregiver benefits, while simultaneously fighting a court ruling that would force them to allow a legal review for individuals rejected for the program.

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The VA’s move to revise its application process for caregiver benefits comes after an order last month from the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims judges, which ruled that families rejected by the Program of Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers should have an opportunity to appeal those decisions to the Board of Veterans’ Appeals. The BVA handles other VA benefits disputes.

Military Times’s recent article entitled “VA overhauls application process for caregiver support program after court ruling” reports that VA officials have opposed that idea. Instead, they want to keep program decisions within the clinical side of department operations. They feel that this will produce better health care options for veterans and less complexity for families.

“We believe that participation in this program is part of a veteran’s overall medical care plan,” said Meg Kabat, senior advisor on families, caregivers and survivors at VA. “These clinical and medical decisions being thrown into the litigation process is not what is best for veterans.”

The VA has asked the full veterans claims court to reconsider the April decision. The case focuses on concerns about the way in which applications to the caregiver program are handled. For veterans who need significant home care from a spouse or family member, the program awards up to $2,300 a month in stipends and access to additional support services.

There are roughly 25,000 veterans now participating in the program, with another 27,000 pending applications. The current process has the leaders from individual VA medical centers review applications and make decisions on who gets the benefit. That has resulted in complaints about inconsistency and a lack of transparency with the application process from veterans advocates. This formed the basis of the recent lawsuit.

Kabat explains that those applications will now go to clinical teams at each of the department’s 18 Veterans Integrated Service Networks. About 200 new medical professionals are being hired for this.

Vets rejected for the program by the new review panels can appeal to a different VISN twice, if they think the decision was made in error. VA officials said the new process will let families and outside advocates better understand the reasons for the decisions and make certain that similar applications across the country are handled in a similar way.

However, nothing in the new application process unveiled by VA would award back pay to veterans previously rejected for the program. In a statement, Amanda Pertusati, supervising staff attorney at Public Counsel (which brought the lawsuit against the department), said officials are still reviewing the changes.

“We look forward to implementing the court’s order to ensure that all caregiver program claimants have the ability to seek appellate review, as well as to obtain the benefits that they are entitled to,” she said. “It is unfortunate that the parties and the court will now have to be distracted by VA’s attacks on the court’s decision, rather than focusing all efforts to implement it.”

The court ordered the VA to create an implementation plan for the retroactive appeals by June. VA officials said they will follow that order, even as they contest the lawsuit.