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Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs

Remarks by Secretary Denis R. McDonough

Rosalyn Carter Institute for Caregivers Convening
Atlanta, GA
October 12, 2022

Good morning, everyone!

It’s great to be with so many family Caregivers and Caregivers’ advocates here in Atlanta, and to share some information with you about our Caregiver Support Programs (CSP) at the Department of Veterans Affairs—VA. Thank you all for participating in this important event.

Let me first acknowledge former First Lady Rosalynn Carter, whose foresight, compassion, and understanding gave rise to this Institute for Caregivers. She and former President Carter are shining examples of what unwavering patriotism, generosity, and concern for our fellow Americans can accomplish. And they are a profound example of the central role Veterans and military families play in America—while in uniform and for years afterward.

Dr. Jennifer Olsen, CEO of the Rosalynn Carter Institute, thanks for your leadership of an exceptional organization.

And thanks, as well, to two great VA colleagues with us today. Meg Kabat—many of you know Meg, who previously served as both Deputy Director and National Director for our VA Caregiver program, and now serves as the first ever Senior Advisor for Families, Caregivers, and Survivors. Her advice and experience are simply invaluable.

And Tim Jobin, our Deputy Director of VA’s Caregiver Support Program. Thanks for all you do.

And thanks, too, for the work of our indefatigable and tireless director of that important program, Dr. Colleen Richardson. 

You know, when I became Secretary of VA, President Biden charged me to fight like hell for Veterans. And I knew then something that’s been hammered home to me every day since—which is that fighting like hell for Veterans means fighting like hell for Veterans’ Caregivers.

Because supporting Caregivers isn’t only the right thing to do, though it is. But because it means more access to care and better outcomes for Veterans.

It means that Caregivers don’t have to choose between going to work or putting food on the table and caring for the ones they love. And it means that Veterans can continue living in their homes where they want to be, where they should be, where they belong.

So, at VA, we fully recognize and support the critical importance of this institute’s mission to “promote the health, strength, and resilience of all Caregivers at every stage of their journey.” Because, in so many ways, your mission is our mission.

So, thank you all, for all you do—for your loved ones, and for the nation.

Now, like the RCI, we at VA are dedicated to providing all Veterans’ Caregivers with the support and resources they need to care for their Veterans ... Caregivers like Jean King.

Jean and her husband, Jack, raised five children and were approaching the end of their careers when Jack, a Vietnam Veteran, was diagnosed with Stage 4 non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.

Jean became Jack’s Caregiver, leaving her own career, as so many Caregivers do, to provide Jack’s care.

At first, she felt lost, saying that she felt like a “a gerbil running in a wheel ending up back in the same place.”

But then, Jean learned about VA programs for Caregivers.

Thanks to the support of VA people like Caregiver Support Program social worker Tiffany Pundai, Jean grew into an expert Caregiver for Jack.

Jean said, “We are just so grateful for VA. Without them, I don’t know what we would have done.”

She calls people like Tiffany “angels on earth.”

That’s what our Caregiver programs are all about: making a seemingly insurmountable challenge seem doable, helping caregivers get through those hard times to reach the good times, changing, for the better, the lives of Caregivers and those they provide care for.

Now, I want to share some information on how we approach Caregiver support at VA.

We have two national Caregiver Support programs. The first is our Program of General Caregiver Support Services—or PGCSS. PGCSS is the core of VA’s Caregiver Support Program. No formal application is required to receive assistance under PGCSS, but the Caregiver must be providing care to a Veteran enrolled in VA health care to participate.

The program provides peer support mentoring, skills training, one-on-one coaching and support, group support, telephone and mobile support, online programs, referrals to available resources to Caregivers of Veterans, and connection to resources to Caregivers of Veterans of all eras. 

Second is our Program of Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers—PCAFC. PCAFC provides all the services found in our general program of Caregiver support, but also includes education and training, enhanced respite care, counseling, beneficiary travel allowances, financial and legal resources, a monthly stipend, and sometimes, even health care.

We celebrated the 10-year anniversary of CSP in May of 2021, so we’ve been at this for about 11 and a half years now. Since the beginning of the Caregiver Program in 2011, we have made a powerful impact in the lives of Caregivers and their Veterans. As of today, there are over 55,000 Caregivers enrolled in our general and comprehensive programs.

On 1 October, we expanded PCACF to include eligible Veterans of all eras. Within just the last two weeks, we’ve received over 10,000 new applications for the program.

We have over 2,100 dedicated VA employees working in our Caregiver Support Program across the country, and we’re investing more than a billion dollars in our program this fiscal year [FY 2023].

Those investments in people and resources make a real difference in outcomes for Veterans and their Caregivers. VA research has shown a significant increases in medical and mental health care for the Veterans they care for—and we’ve begun piloting telehealth mental health services to Veterans’ Caregivers, as well.   

It hasn’t always been a smooth or easy journey—for Caregivers or for VA. So, let me share a few lessons learned—because they may help others in government, the private sector, and providers of care.

We’ve learned that we need to keep our system simple—so Veterans and their Caregivers can access the care and resources they need.

We’ve learned that Veterans and Caregivers access more VA care than those not enrolled—important, because study after study has shown that Veterans receiving VA care do better than those who do not.

We’ve learned that Caregivers participating in Caregiver programs provide better care, and live happier, more balanced lives, than those who don’t.

We’ve learned how important our training programs are for Caregivers, with topics ranging from Alzheimer’s and dementia to post traumatic stress to suicide prevention and myriad other topics that help Caregivers better care for their Veterans.

We’ve learned the importance of making sound, thoughtful considerations on eligibility criteria—always seeking to reach decisions that are in Veterans’ and Caregivers’ best interests—and how important it is to make those decisions transparent and understandable.

We’ve learned we must have consistent, reliable, and understandable rationale for the decisions we make, and have clear steps for Veterans if they choose to appeal a decision they disagree with. 

And we’ve learned that, nationally, no one else really does what we do at VA—provide support for multiple generations with distinctly different caregiving needs resulting from combat injuries, accidents, and the natural loss of ability that comes from aging.

And at the end of the day, that’s one of the many reasons why this program is important, because it confirms for the rest of the country what the people in this room already know, what you prove through your work every day, which is that Caregiver support works, it’s necessary, and everyone—everyone—should have access to it.

Now, we know we can and must do more to fulfill our most sacred obligation to take care of those who have borne the battle.

And that’s exactly what we’re doing, step-by-step.

This is the direction VA is moving, and we’re proud to be blazing trails in Caregiver support.

This is important, innovative work. It’s a life changer, a life saver, for Caregivers and families—giving them the tools, training, resources, and support needed to care for their Veterans. Which is why we are calling 2022 the “Year of the Caregiver.”

And it’s why we’ve committed to expanding VA’s Caregiver services in the areas of mental health care, respite care, and focusing our efforts on the Caregiver and Veteran experience, providing an even better program going forward.

Because, simply said, we must get this right for Caregivers all across America. They’re counting on us, and we will deliver for them.

I’ll close with one final note.

Whenever I think of the work that you do, I remember a story I heard from a Veteran whose wife is his primary Caregiver.

This Veteran is a quadruple amputee, and he needs his wife’s help for most everything—from brushing his teeth, to shaving, to getting dressed, to putting on his prosthetics in the morning.

And when he tells his story, he notes that “people come up to [him] all the time and say thank you for your service.”

And he appreciates that. Truly. But he also says that “nobody ever comes up to [his wife] and thanks her for the service that she’s given to this country by taking care of [him].”

That’s wrong. Wrong.

Because you know what? Supporting Veterans means supporting Veteran Caregivers. There cannot be one without the other. And at VA, I promise you, there never will be.

We will support Veteran Caregivers and all Caregivers because it’s the right thing to do—for them, and the loved ones they care for.

Best wishes for a great convening. Thanks again for having me as your guest.   

God bless and best wishes to you all.