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After being dropped, vets and their caregivers may remain in VA program

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

For now, veterans and their caregivers may remain in a popular Department of Veterans Affairs program after they were dropped. As NPR's Quil Lawrence reports, it is offering some relief for vets and might be a step toward restoring trust.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Ashley Sitorius and her husband, William, joined the caregiver program in 2012 when it was brand-new. He did combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. The VA says he's 100% disabled - PTSD, traumatic brain injury. William needed help with many tasks throughout the day, and that kept Ashley from being able to hold down a job. For Ashley, the caregiver program was like the VA saying, this is your job.

ASHLEY SITORIUS: There was a little card in the packet and it said, Ashley Sitorius, the caregiver program. And I just felt like, wow, this is serious. This is important. And I carried that dang little card in my wallet forever.

LAWRENCE: That feeling didn't last. In 2015, they were dropped from the program without explanation. NPR later reported that VAs in some states were purging caregivers from their roles. Ashley Sitorius had to get a job at a bakery.

SITORIUS: That was really bad. I'd have to be out the door and at the bakery by 4:30 in the morning. But my husband was not able to, you know, wake up in time and get the kids off to school. And I'd get phone calls, and it would be like, hey, is anybody going to pick up your child from school?

LAWRENCE: After three months, she quit. They went into debt. After three years fighting the red tape, Sitorius got reinstated in the program. That was 2018, the same year that Congress expanded the caregiver program to include Vietnam-era veterans and eventually disabled vets from all eras. But under the new law, everyone had to be reassessed. By last year, for reasons the VA is still unable to explain, 90% of post-9/11 caregivers were slated to be kicked off, including Ashley and William Sitorius.

SITORIUS: So that day is March 22 - is when we did our functional assessment. It is our anniversary. It's our daughter's birthday. And it's the same dang day that the VA announced a pause.

LAWRENCE: A pause. The VA suspended the review. So they weren't kicked off, but Sitorius says she's been in uneasy limbo.

SITORIUS: There are sleepless nights, you know, anxiety. We have had no security in this program for how many years now?

LAWRENCE: Then yesterday, VA press secretary Terrence Hayes announced a new three-year grace period. No one will be removed until September 2025.

TERRENCE HAYES: Moving forward, we will continue to examine ways to improve the program and make sure it delivers for veterans and their caregivers.

LAWRENCE: I called Ashley Sitorius right after that announcement. She was wary.

SITORIUS: I think there's a sense of relief. I have talked to numerous caregivers, but while we have three years, what next? What next? There's broken trust.

LAWRENCE: Terrence Hayes says the VA knows that.

HAYES: This is an opportunity for us to earn and regain that trust with our veterans and our caregivers. And we're going to stop at nothing to ensure that we provide them with the support that they need and deserve.

LAWRENCE: The VA has three years to prove that to the 20,000 post-9/11 caregivers in the program. Quil Lawrence, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Quil Lawrence is a New York-based correspondent for NPR News, covering veterans' issues nationwide. He won a Robert F. Kennedy Award for his coverage of American veterans and a Gracie Award for coverage of female combat veterans. In 2019 Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America honored Quil with its IAVA Salutes Award for Leadership in Journalism.