By Leo Shane III and Megan McCloskey
Stars and Stripes (stripes.com)
WASHINGTON – Caregivers of wounded veterans mistakenly received letters recently warning that automatic spending cuts set for January could stop their monthly stipends, creating more concern about the problems that sequestration might bring.
Veterans Affairs spokesman Josh Taylor said department officials have contacted all of the caregivers who received the notifications, clarifying that their stipends are not in danger and apologizing for the confusion.
“The letter has no bearing on the VA Caregiver Support Program or the stipend benefit,” he said.
About 6,000 spouses and parents of seriously injured veterans currently receive the monthly caregiver stipend, which can total more than $30,000 a year. Congress put the program in place to make sure that families of veterans who need constant care aren’t left destitute.
The letter, signed by the VA’s acting chief acquisition officer, caused panic and confusion in the caregiver community, especially before VA contacted the families to explain the mistake.
It discusses warnings required of federal agencies to government contractors about “concerns their contracts may be terminated or reduced in the event of a sequester on January 2.”
The caregiver support program has had many hiccups, with lengthy delays before stipends began in summer 2011 and initial rules that made thousands of troops with brain injuries ineligible for the benefit. Many caregivers expressed frustration at yet another bureaucratic snag.
One caregiver said she was told they received the letters because the VA categorizes them as “contractors” rather than creating a new category in their system for just the caregivers. She didn’t understand caregivers’ inclusion in that broad group.
Last week, White House officials released an impact report stating that all major VA accounts would be exempt from sequestration, more than $1 trillion in federal spending curbs set to go into effect in January.
VA officials would not say how the mix-up occurred, or why any preparation would be done for sequestration of veterans programs.
But some veteran-related programs in other departments – funding for monuments commissions, Department of Labor job training initiatives, and Arlington National Cemetery – would see up to 10 percent of their budget slashed by the automatic trims.
Lawmakers from both parties have decried the budget cuts, particularly the nearly $55 billion in spending reductions the Department of Defense would absorb. But Congress ended its September work session this week without any progress on alternative deficit reduction plans, leaving the issue to be resolved after the November elections.
Defense contractors have begun sending out layoff notices to many of their employees, warning that the hefty cuts could reduce or eliminate a host of existing military contracts.