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Left out in the cold 

Veteran family members at risk of  being dropped from VA caregiver  program 

By Matt Saintsing 

Life as an infantryman and Army Ranger took a toll 

 on Matt Drinkwalter’s mind and body. As a result of  deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, he now endures  a traumatic brain injury (TBI) with cognitive disorder;  has severe and chronic post-traumatic stress disorder;  can’t move his feet properly due to torn ankle ligaments  and

screws in his toes and experiences migraines. 

A doctor also told him that at age 42, he has the  hips of an 80-year-old. 

“Every morning, I feel like a truck hit me,” added  Drinkwalter. 

He met his wife, Darci, after leaving military service.  They’ve been married since 2018, and she said she’s  been his caregiver since day one. 

“I knew he was going through some things when  I first met him, but I was pretty oblivious to a lot of  what was really happening,” she said. 

By 2012, the Department of Veterans Affairs  staff officially enrolled them in the Program of  Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers,  a support program for eligible veterans who incurred  grave injuries from military service. 

“I felt that a lifeline had been thrown my way  and that I was finally seen,” she said. 

Darci orders Matt’s medications and ensures he  takes them on time as prescribed. She also provides  

weekly injections and ensures he’s using his prosthetic  devices. And she’s there for him during flashbacks and  migraines. When Matt becomes disoriented and forgets  where his is, Darci brings him back. 

“I could write a book for the many ways she helps  me,” said Matt. “She helps me both physically and  mentally on a daily basis.” 

The monthly stipend the Drinkwalters received  meant that Darci could afford to tend to Matt’s  full-time needs. 

But everything changed in December 2021 when  a VA caregiver coordinator informed them they would  be dropped from the program because Drinkwalter,  in their opinion, did not need six months of  continuous care. 

The Drinkwalters are among the various “legacy”  participants in the VA’s caregiver program who were  notified they would be released after the department  reviewed program standards and eligibility, which  changed in 2021. According to the VA, these reviews  were intended to help ensure that families—many of  whom receive a monthly stipend—are treated fairly. 

However, they feel like they may be dropped from  a program they say has been life-changing. “I felt unseen and unappreciated,” added Darci.  “How could someone look at his medical records  and not see what I do?” 

In an abrupt departure, the VA announced in March  that the agency was halting all dismissals while the  department reevaluates new eligibility criteria. 

“There are veterans with moderate to severe care  needs who are unable to be admitted into the program  or remain in the program, as the regulations currently  

stand,” VA Deputy Secretary Donald Remy said at a  press conference. “That’s simply not what we want.  That’s not what the veterans and caregivers need  from us.” 

The caregiver initiative has been a lifeline for  tens of thousands, but the unacceptably high rate of  denials into and discharges from the program based  on new eligibility criteria has been deeply troubling,  according to National Service Director Jim Marszalek,  who testified before the Senate Veterans Affairs’  Committee following the VA announcement. 

“The caregiver program is not just about meeting  their needs,” said Marszalek. “It is also about providing  the honor, respect and tangible support that caregivers  and their families have earned and deserve.” 

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