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The U.S. government missed a deadline to care for those who care for disabled veterans. Family members often look after veterans when they come home. The Department of Veterans Affairs has a program to pay them a stipend when they do that. It helps - when the money arrives. But the program is overburdened, and NPR found the department arbitrarily cut off some caregivers. The department promised to expand the program by the deadline that just passed. NPR's Quil Lawrence reports from Tennessee.
QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Chris Kurtz is trying to keep his sense of humor even after the VA told him last summer that he no longer needs a caregiver.
CHRIS KURTZ: Apparently my legs grew back. I don't know (laughter).
LAWRENCE: In December 2010, a bomb blast ended his army deployment to Afghanistan. He lost both legs above the knee and half of his left hand. He was in and out of consciousness, medevaced first to Kandahar and then an Army hospital in Germany.
C. KURTZ: The nurse spoke to me, and she said, in a thick German accent, Private Kurtz, I have some good news for you. You're going home. Merry Christmas.
LAWRENCE: Christmas that year was about recovery. His fiance Heather joined him at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. And the VA suggested she apply for their new caregiver program. The program pays family members of disabled Iraq and Afghanistan veterans - mostly wives and mothers - to do hours of home health care that would otherwise cost the VA millions of dollars. When it started in 2011, vets signed up in huge numbers quickly overwhelming the VA staff assigned to the program. In recent years, many VA's have drastically cut their rolls - often with little explanation to the caregivers, like Heather Kurtz.
HEATHER KURTZ: He's all better now - all better. So he doesn't need a caregiver for anything.
LAWRENCE: The Tennessee Valley VA had been sending Kurtz a stipend and quarterly visits from a nurse since 2013. But with little consultation, it dropped Kurtz off the program last July.
KURTZ: It was part of my identity. And then to have a letter tell me, well, you're no longer on the caregiver program - it kind of felt like it took part of that identity away from me. And it hurt like a punch in the gut because I didn't stop caregiving. I've always been a caregiver, and I always will be.
LAWRENCE: Following inquiries from NPR, VA says it's now working to reinstate the Kurtzs pending a review. The VA says it's working to standardize the program and remove some vets who never should have qualified. But a VA inspector general report in August found that about half the time VA wasn't adequately monitoring the veterans' health when it dropped them.
KURTZ: Everybody that I know of, at this point in my circle of caregivers, has been dropped and have not been put back on the program.
LAWRENCE: Heather Kurtz is probably not exaggerating. Tennessee Valley VA says it has 104 caregivers on the program. Less than two years ago, there were 510. So they kicked off 406 caregivers - 80 percent. It's not only Tennessee. Sherman Gillums is a paralyzed former Marine who uses the VA in Washington, D.C. His wife is his caregiver.
SHERMAN GILLUMS: I was also told that in order to stay on the program that I needed to have gotten treatment in the VA within the last year, or else I'll be removed from the program.
LAWRENCE: Gillums says the VA had it wrong. He had been in for treatment.
GILLUMS: You could take that as just informing me of the policy, or it seems like a veiled threat. That's just how I took it.
LAWRENCE: Gillums happens to be a senior official with one of the country's largest veterans organizations AMVETS. And he's the vice chairman of the VA's own caregiver advisory committee. He thinks there's an effort to shrink the program.
GILLUMS: I characterize it this way - beginning a purge. It almost felt accelerated to me.
LAWRENCE: Gillums says getting the program fixed is crucial because it's about to grow five or six times bigger. Congress passed a law in May - the VA Mission Act, which will expand the program to World War II, Korea and Vietnam-era vets. VA Secretary Robert Wilkie told NPR last month that VA is close to fixing the program.
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ROBERT WILKIE: What the Mission Act has done - it has provided us with more resources to go out into the community and find those families that we have not been supporting, from the Vietnam era in particular.
LAWRENCE: Families like Paula and Chris Minger in Temecula, Cali. - Chris suffered an abdominal wound in 1973. And complications led the VA to rate him 100 percent disabled. Paula has been taking care of him without any VA stipend program for over 30 years. He's in and out of the hospital, and now he's often bedridden at home.
PAULA MINGER: He's probably just the most amazing guy I've ever known in my life. You know, his mind is so good. He's an avid reader. He does everything he can to make himself better.
LAWRENCE: Now he's 68, and she's 67. And she'd love some help. So the caregiver expansion was great news.
MINGER: I'm thrilled by it. I can't wait.
LAWRENCE: But she'll have to wait. The timeline isn't clear for when the expansion will start. Like many Vietnam vet caregivers, Minger thought it would start this spring, a year after the law passed. But it could be as long as three years away.
MINGER: I mean, I'm speechless. Think how many will die before then. And that's horrible.
LAWRENCE: VA says the department will not deploy the new system until it is ready and has been tested thoroughly. But the VA has missed its first deadline to implement new IT for the caregiver expansion, according to congressional sources who say they're worried about more delays ahead.
Quil Lawrence, NPR News, Clarksville, Tenn.
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