WASHINGTON — Reversing itself, the Department of Veterans Affairs said Tuesday that it will pay thousands of family members who care for severely wounded soldiers at home under a new and expanded program approved by Congress last year.
A year ago, President Obama signed a groundbreaking law that created the caregivers program, which serves service members who were injured after Sept. 11, 2001. But the program has been a disappointment for military families, late in getting started and excluding many who thought they would qualify.
Some of the loudest complaints had come from members of Congress, led by Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington state, chairwoman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.
She expressed satisfaction Tuesday that the pressure had worked.
"This is an important turnaround for family members of severely wounded veterans who have dropped everything to care for their loved ones," Murray said. "The administration realized their mistake in limiting and delaying this benefit and is taking steps to fix it, and to fix it quickly."
According to Murray, Congress wanted the law to serve at least 3,500 caregivers, but the VA was prepared to serve only 840 caregivers. That number will now more than quadruple, going to 3,596, according to estimates provided to Murray's committee.
The program is expected to cost $777 million over five years.
"The bottom line is that because we held them accountable, the VA will make a larger investment," said Murray, who had personally lobbied Obama on the issue.
She called caregiving "a cost of war that for too long has gone unaccounted for and one we can no longer ignore."
Stipends for caregivers are expected to vary in geographic regions and to be comparable to the salaries of commercial caregivers.
In addition to receiving a stipend, eligible caregivers will receive mental health services and health care insurance, if they're not already enrolled in a plan, according to the VA.
"I know many veterans and their family caregivers have been waiting anxiously for this day, and I urge them to get their applications in as soon as possible so they can receive the additional support they have earned," Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki said in announcing the expanded program.
Congress had given the department an original deadline of Jan. 30 to get the program up and running. But the VA said it will now begin receiving applications May 9.