​​​​​​​After backlash, VA suspends practice of dropping caregivers from its stipend program, promises review

Veterans affairs sign
The Department of Veterans Affairs has come under fire for removing caregivers from its stipend program without notification. (JeffOnWire CC BY 2.0)

The Department of Veterans Affairs announced that it will temporarily stop issuing revocations in its caregiver stipend program following backlash that spawned from reports that its medical centers were dropping families from eligibility without warning.

Secretary David Shulkin said in a statement that the VA is taking “immediate action” to review the program, and that the agency will stop issuing revocations for three weeks. The Program of Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers offers a stipend to family members who provide home care to VA patients.

“Caregivers play a critically important role in the health and well-being of veterans, and caring for an injured veteran is a labor of love,” Poonam Alaigh, M.D., Acting VA Under Secretary for Health, said in the statement. “We remain focused on process improvements and support services for our family caregivers so they can take care of our veterans.”

The VA’s decision follows multiple reports over the past several weeks that caregivers were being kicked out of the program. For instance, National Public Radio reported on the case of a North Carolina woman who was, seemingly out of nowhere, booted from the program.

Alishia Graham told the outlet that she had been enrolled in the stipend program for six years because her husband, Jim, suffered a brain injury while serving in Iraq with the Navy.

It's not like the agency said he doesn't need as much help, she said. Rather, the agency acted like "he's totally fine and he doesn't need any help," she told NPR. "I'm insulted for him. Because I know what he struggles with."

Similar situations were reported in Portland, Oregon, according to The Oregonian. Jennifer Olivas was enrolled in the program for four years as a caregiver for her husband, Aaron, who suffered a brain injury and from post-traumatic stress disorder after serving with the Army in Iraq, before suddenly being removed from the program last summer. More than a dozen veterans told the outlet they experienced something similar.

The situation highlights regional inconsistency in VA programs and a lack of transparency about decisions, according to the article.

RELATED: OIG: VA hospitals in North Carolina, Virginia underreported wait times; entered incorrect scheduling data

All aspects of VA healthcare have been under close scrutiny following a nationwide scandal in 2014 that exposed long wait times for veterans seeking care in the system. Since then, hospitals from North Carolina to Houston to Washington, D.C. have come under fire for practices that may have put patients at risk.