John Plahovinsak: VA continues to battle caregivers of veterans
The U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims in April of 2021 has decided that the process the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) used to disapprove thousands of disabled veteran caregivers’ applications was incorrect.
The class action lawsuit argued that the existing administrative appeals process of the Program of Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers (PCAFC) leads to erroneous and inconsistent decisions, causing significant strain on the veterans financial, medical and mental health.
There are 25,000 veterans enrolled in the PCAFA who need dedicated home care from a spouse or family member. A maximum of $2,300 in a monthly stipend is provided to the caregiver, along with training, equipment and supplies.
There are approximately 20,000 veterans accepted for the PCAFA and 27,000 applications are pending. Over 400,000 applications have been submitted since the PCAFA was enacted by Congress in 2010. The 20,000 participants approved by the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) are only 5 percent of the applications submitted.
The VA may still appeal the court’s verdict and prolong the lengthy battle against the caregivers, which has been waged since 2010. This is similar to the 20-year battle the VA waged against Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans and their disability compensation claims for exposure to Agent Orange.
The PCAFC was enacted by Congress as a part of the VA MISSION Act of 2010. This law was for the Caregivers of disabled veterans, who had been injured on active duty after September 11, 2001.
In October of 2020, Congress expanded the PCAFC to include veterans who served before May of 1975, which includes the Vietnam War veterans. In 2022, the PCAFC is scheduled to be expanded to encompass all caregivers.
The supporters of the veterans and caregivers have cited that the VHA has applied inconsistent standards and rules in implementing the PCAFA. Also, they claim that the VHA has made arbitrary and wrongful reductions or terminated benefits.
Statistics provided by the VHA indicated that nearly 20,000 veterans and their caregivers have been revoked from the PCAFA since 2010. Veterans, or their caregivers, had no way to appeal the denial of assistance or termination of their benefits to an independent judicial review panel.
The application process for the PCAFA is a lengthy complex process. The appeal/ disapproval of the application was made solely by the VHA. This is where the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims felt that the process was flawed and their decision changes the entire situation.
This decision was a class action determination and consists of veterans and caregivers who have appealed their caregiver cases, within the last decade, and were denied by the VHA.
“This decision will allow veterans and their caregivers to finally voice the inconsistencies and errors they have experienced with the Caregiver Program,” said Attorney Amanda Perusati.
On May 10, 2021, VA asked the full veterans claims court to revisit the April decision made by the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims.
The Court ruling, if the VA does not formally appeal, requires that the VA officials (working together with outside attorneys) compile a full listing of applicants from the last 10 years who may be owed another chance at appeal. The list must be completed in 45 days and those cases would go before the Board of Veterans Appeals (BVA).
However, the VA officials have opposed the Court of Appeals ruling believing that program decisions should be kept on the clinical side of the department’s operation and not with the BVA.
The Senior Advisor on Families, Caregivers and Services at the VA, Ms. Meg Kabat said, “These clinical and medical decisions being thrown into the litigation process is not what is best for the veterans.”
Currently, the VA is overhauling their application process for caregiver benefits. Now the applications will be forwarded to clinical teams at each of the VA’s 18 Veteran Integrated Service Networks (VISNs).
Veterans who are rejected for the PCAFA by the new VISN team can appeal to a different VISN twice if they believe the decision was made in error.
My Opinion: The bureaucracy of the VA has waged campaigns against disabled veterans in the past. These campaigns were evident by: (1) the stalling of earned disability compensation benefits to Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans for over 20 years; (2) appealing decisions made by courts; and (3) requesting more and more research before a decision is made.
The Disabled American Veterans, along with other Veteran Service Organizations (VSOs), have been fighting to support caregivers of disabled veterans for the dedicated service they make. From a purely economical standpoint, it is very advantageous for the VA to have a disabled veteran receiving care at home, instead of being cared for in a VA Nursing Home Facility.
For the 20,000 veterans currently participating on the PCAFA, if they did not have a dedicated caregiver, the VA would have to construct and staff nearly seventy (70) new 300-bed VA Nursing Homes.
The new application process that the VA has started on May 10, 2021, would not award any back compensation to veterans for being erroneously rejected by the VA from the PCAFA. It will require more paperwork from the veteran and more time will elapse.
If the VA appeals the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims’ ruling, it may take another year to resolve the issue. This is reminiscent of the stalling tactic the VA used in the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans issue.
Part of this problem lies with Congress because they failed to provide specific instructions on how the Caregivers Program should be implemented by the VA. It gave the PCAFA to the VA to implement and now the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims finds faults with their administration.
I hope that for the sake of the disabled veterans and their caregivers that have been wronged by erroneous VA decisions, the VA Secretary Denis McDonough should interject himself into the situation and work with the VSOs in resolving this situation. Disabled veterans and their dedicated caregivers deserve better.
John Plahovinsak is a 32-year Army retired veteran. He is the State Commander of the Disabled American Veterans. For addition information on the PCAFA, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.