Families of veterans who served before the recent wars won’t be added to the Veterans Affairs caregivers program until summer 2020 at the earliest, department officials announced Wednesday.
The delay had been expected for months, as VA officials struggled to get new technology and processes in place to handle an influx of new applicants to the program. Currently, only families of troops injured after Sept. 11, 2001, are eligible for program stipends, which can total several thousand dollars a month.
Under the VA Mission Act passed last year, veterans who sustained a serious military-related injury before May 7, 1975, were supposed to be able to enroll starting this fall. Now, they’ll have to wait at least June 2020 for entry, if not longer.
A major expansion of the stipend program is scheduled for this fall, but lawmakers worry VA officials won't be ready for it.
That’s because department officials still must certify their information technology systems are ready for use before the new families can be added to the program. VA officials said they hope to begin integrating a new “off the shelf” management system next month, with work scheduled through the winter in spring with hopes of completion by next summer.
“VA will perform testing and verify that the system has full functionality before expanding the program as required under the MISSION Act,” the department said in a statement.
The timeline shift also pushes back eligibility for families of veterans who served from 1975 to 2001, from fall 2021 to fall 2022 at the earliest. Lawmakers have included a phased application period for different generations of service members to ease pressure on VA systems.
In a statement, officials from the Elizabeth Dole Foundation called the delay concerning.
“We must provide our pre-9/11 caregivers the benefits and support they deserve,” said Steve Schwab, CEO of the foundation. “We plan to hold the VA accountable as they target this new deadline. Pre-9/11 caregivers have been waiting long enough for the benefits they need.”
VA Secretary Robert Wilkie in a statement did not address past frustration about the slow pace of work but said the department is “strengthening and expanding our program to positively impact the lives of veterans and deliver the best customer experience.”
About 20,000 veterans were participating in the VA program at the start of this summer. Officials have estimated the expansion could grant monthly stipends to more than 41,000 new veteran families in coming years.
Since the start of the year, VA officials have hired more than 680 staffers to work with the caregiver program and amended a host of operating procedures to simplify and reform the existing program.
Veterans groups worry that a planned expansion of the caregiver stipend set for this fall may be delayed.
The delay is the latest in a series of difficulties with the caregiver program for VA. Last year, Wilkie ordered a halt to all discharges from the program after families complained they were being forced out by administrators who mistakenly determined that veterans’ injuries had improved or healed completely.
VA officials said since then they have held multiple listening sessions with caregivers and veterans groups on ways to improve the system. Outside advocates have offered mixed reviews of that work.
More information on the program is available on the VA web site, or through the VA Caregiver Support Line at 1-855-260-3274.