Portland VA to temporarily stop removing vets from caregiver program

Under pressure from Oregon’s congressional leaders, the Portland VA said Monday that it has temporarily stopped removing people from a program that pays spouses of disabled veterans to be caregivers.

Daniel Herrigstad, a Portland VA spokesman, said the suspension affected one veteran whose eligibility was being actively reviewed. The halt will remain in place “until we receive further guidance” from the caregiver program’s national director and regional officials, he said.

The Portland VA has removed a total of 207 veterans of the six-year-old program. Fifty-seven currently participate.

The announced change came hours after the six Democrats in Oregon’s Congressional delegation demanded answers and asked Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin to immediately halt revocations in Portland.

The lawmakers’ letter asked Shulkin to answer a long list of questions about the way the $725 million program is being administered in the Northwest. They cited The Oregonian/OregonLive’s story of a Salem veteran who was kicked out of the program without explanation.

“The story raises serious concerns with the management of the program at the local level,” the Democrats wrote.

The Iraq veteran featured in the story, Aaron Olivas, participated in a Veterans Affairs program called Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers for four years. Until last June, his wife, Jennifer, was paid $2,020 a month to be his caregiver. He returned from Iraq with a traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder that leave him unable to work.

But the Olivas family was kicked out last year with no explanation, and two appeals were rejected. The Olivas family isn’t alone. Other veterans are coming forward with similar stories, the lawmakers noted.

VA officials in Portland are more likely to kick veterans out of the caregiver program than elsewhere, statistics for the program show. Although the decision can be appealed, vets in Portland are forced to rely on an opaque system that offers little explanation. Not a single appealed case has been reversed here.

Olivas welcomed the congressional scrutiny and the VA’s announcement. “I want to stop other battle buddies of mine and other veterans from being kicked from this program unfairly,” he said. “It feels so unreal to actually be heard and be listened to.”

The Democrats asked the VA secretary to detail how the Portland program’s removal rate compares to other VA facilities and explain why it is higher.

The lawmakers’ letter follows an earlier call for a halt in revocations from Rep. Kurt Schrader, a Salem Democrat. He was joined in the letter by Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, and Reps. Suzanne Bonamici, Earl Blumenauer and Peter DeFazio.

Though Greg Walden, Oregon’s lone Republican representative, didn’t sign the letter, a spokesman said he supported it.