WASHINGTON – U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud says a new law to help wounded veterans who get care in home settings from family caregivers is back on track.

The Democrat from Maine, who helped craft the legislation that was signed into law last year, and others have been critical of how the Department of Veterans Affairs has been putting the initiative into effect.

It is supposed to aid about 3,500 caregivers nationwide, providing services such as mental health counseling, caregiver training and money for respite care. But on March 11, at a hearing of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, on which Michaud serves, lawmakers blasted the VA for writing rules for the new law too narrowly, in a way that would make only about 800 families eligible for the aid.

The VA announced this week that it is widening those rules, and President Obama referred to the situation this week when he attended the start of a bike ride honoring wounded veterans, sponsored by the Wounded Warrior Project.

“I can report that starting next week, our veterans, wounded warriors and caregivers can start applying for the support that you need and deserve,” Obama said. “We are going to get this done, and we’re very proud of that.”

Steve Nardizzi, executive director of the Wounded Warrior Project, said this week that he “commends President Obama for hearing the message sent by families in need and directing this law be implemented swiftly and with broader coverage for these families.”

Michaud said in a statement Wednesday that the “VA’s new rules will be more consistent with the law’s intent and substantially expand the number of caregivers eligible for assistance. Caregivers step up each and every day to care for veterans that sacrificed everything to defend our country, and I’m pleased that they will finally get a level of assistance that begins to match their own dedication.”

Michaud said in a recent interview that he first wrote the bill last year, when he chaired the committee’s health subcommittee and met with veterans and their caregivers about the problem of family caregivers not being given enough help.

“One lady broke down in tears in my office because she feared her husband would commit suicide,” Michaud said.

Michaud said the VA did not back the legislation, apparently fearing the program’s cost, and failed to come up with a plan by last fall, as required by the legislation, for implementing it.

But, Michaud said, the VA’s proposed 2012 budget contains more than $750 million in spending for next year that isn’t earmarked for anything. That’s much more money than the program would require — about $160 million next year and $770 million over five years — and shows that the VA can afford to carry out the law as intended, Michaud said.

Michaud’s office said that, starting Monday, veterans may download a copy of the family caregiver program application at www.caregiver.va.gov. Veterans and their caregivers also can call (877) 222-VETS (8387) for help with the application or receive assistance at their VA medical centers.

 

MaineToday Madia Washington Bureau Chief Jonathan Riskind can be contacted at 791-6280 or at:

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