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More than 70 people recently died of COVID-19 at a veterans home in New Jersey. This is just the latest example of why many older veterans seek care at home as a safer option. There is a VA program to financially help caregivers at home, which began for post-9/11 veterans and has since been expanded to older vets. But as NPR's Quil Lawrence reports, help is still months away.
QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: For decades, family members, usually wives, have taken care of America's disabled veterans. The care they give is often better than outside help, and it costs the government nothing. But it costs the caregivers a lot.
DONNA JOYNER: I gave up my job, my pension.
LAWRENCE: Donna Joyner has been taking care of her husband, Dennis, for years. A landmine in Vietnam cost him his legs and left arm. By 2008, Donna finally had to quit her job and take care of him full-time.
DONNA JOYNER: It's just everything that snowballed from that. Like I said, pension, Social Security - I've lost that. And, you know, you take on a lot when you're a caregiver. I might be getting older, but I do probably more than I've ever done before.
LAWRENCE: Dennis says he got excited in 2018 when Congress voted to expand the caregiver program to include vets like him.
DENNIS JOYNER: They passed it. The president signed it. I'm thinking, wow, I'm ready to go file.
LAWRENCE: Then the Joyners waited.
DENNIS JOYNER: Talk about, you know, taking the wind out of your sail. I mean, it's been a couple years now.
LAWRENCE: The rules of the program finally came up for public comment in early March to a mixed reception. The VA says it's growing the program, opening it to vets with not just injuries but illness, like Vietnam vets with cancer from Agent Orange. But there's the fine print. Bob Carey does veterans advocacy with The Independence Fund.
BOB CAREY: This looks to me like a significant restriction of eligibility for the program.
LAWRENCE: Carey says under the rules, vets qualify if they need help with one basic activity, like eating or bathing, but only if they need help every single time. And the caregiver has to be doing all the vet's care. Carey says he's afraid rules like that will keep thousands of deserving vets out.
CAREY: We have been pushing for a long time for some fundamental reforms to the caregiver program, and it appears that really none of those were addressed.
LAWRENCE: Veterans groups also want a transparent system for appeals when a vet gets denied or removed. That's been a big problem in the past, which means VA isn't starting with a lot of built-up trust. And VA keeps announcing delays with its new IT system for the program - delays for vets who've been waiting for help since Vietnam, like Dennis Joyner.
DENNIS JOYNER: What is the thought process - the longer we wait out, you know, the more die off and the less we have to pay? God forbid that would be a thought process that was real. But, you know, us veterans, sometimes we really think that.
LAWRENCE: The VA says the wait will be over by late summer or early fall. It's taken time to create one comprehensive system for vets from Iraq all the way back to Korea, says Meg Kabat, the former director of the caregiver program.
MEG KABAT: The current program has had a lot of challenges with really defining who is eligible. And when you go ahead and expand the population to really a very different population, the challenges just grow exponentially.
LAWRENCE: But the need to support caregivers has never been clearer, she says. That's echoed by Robert Grier, who takes care of his father, who might otherwise be at a veterans home.
ROBERT GRIER: Oh, it's definitely scary, especially now after COVID-19.
LAWRENCE: Grier's father, Robert Sr., served in Korea and Vietnam. Now he needs constant help. He's also a cancer survivor.
GRIER: We were just blessed to have a great team at the VA during his care for that. But that still is kind of a preexisting condition that can - you know, that's not good for COVID.
LAWRENCE: Grier wants to keep taking care of his dad. He's hoping by the fall the VA will help him.
Quil Lawrence, NPR News.
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