Veterans Affairs officials this week took another step towards expanding caregivers benefits to veterans who separated before 2001, but still have not finalized a date for when those families will see the payouts.
The issue has been a focus of lawmakers and outside advocates for months, and was a key part of the VA Mission Act signed into law last summer and repeatedly heralded since by President Donald Trump.
In recent weeks on Capitol Hill, numerous veterans organizations have listed in congressional testimony that the inclusion of older spouses and caregivers in the benefits program is a top legislative priority for this year, and lamented delays in the effort so far.
Department officials missed a deadline get new technology to process new enrollments in place by this fall.
In preliminary language published on the Federal Register on Wednesday, the department said it is moving ahead with the mandate to expand the Program of Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers to veterans who served before May 1975.
That move was supposed to happen last year, but has been delayed because of issues with technology infrastructure to handle the expected influx of new applicants. Officials have said they hope to have those concerns finalized by this fall.
But the new rules do not specify a specific start point when the new rules will take effect, noting that “the timeline for development of an information technology system can be unpredictable.”
About 20,000 veterans — all of whom left the service after Sept. 11, 2001 — are currently participating in the VA caregiver program. The payouts provide thousands of dollars a month in compensation to spouses, parents and other partners of severely injured veterans who otherwise would require expensive institutionalization.
Officials have estimated the expansion of eligible families could grant stipends to more than 41,000 individuals in coming years.
Veterans who separated from the military between 1975 and 2001 will be added to the program two years after the pre-1975 group. That means those families will likely have to wait until fall 2022 for access to the program, if not longer.
The proposed changes would also overhaul the current stipend process, switching from the current three-tiered system to two levels of caregiver stipends. Officials said the change would simplify the process and better distinguish between veterans who need significant help from a caregiver and those who need constant supervision.
Veterans Affairs officials have agreed to a set of recommendations from a special advisory group designed to improve caregiver services and support.
Individuals currently enrolled in the program would be re-evaluated to determine which of the new new tiers they qualify for. That could mean that some current program recipients would be removed from the program.
Calculations for the stipend totals would also be changed, linking them more closely to local wages for commercial home health aides that are tracked by federal officials.
In testimony before the House Appropriations Committee on Wednesday, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie hailed the new caregiver rules as an important step forward for the department in the effort to provide the best care for all veterans.
The final rule language will be published on the Federal Register on Friday. The public will have 60 days to offer comment on the changes.
Reporter Patricia Kime contributed to this report.