VA will miss deadline to expand caregiver benefits to pre-9/11 veterans

Photo credit . (Photo by Renee C. Byer/Sacramento Bee/MCT/Sipa USA)

Caregivers of pre-9/11 veterans will have to continue to wait for benefits Congress ordered for them last year because of Department of Veterans Affairs delays.

The VA will miss an October 1 deadline to roll out assistance to pre-9/11 veterans' caregivers, delaying the expansion of its caregiver program until summer 2020 at the earliest, the department announced.

The VA was required to expand the Program of Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers (PCAFC) under the MISSION Act, which launched in June and was approved by Congress and President Donald Trump in 2018. Benefits of the program include monthly stipends, medical training, health insurance and more. 

Currently, caregiver assistance is only available to veterans seriously injured in the line of duty on or after Sept. 11, 2001. Under the MISSION Act, VA was expected to expand those benefits to veterans from all eras. 

But VA said this week that its information technology system needed to be upgraded and "other improvements" had to be made "to strengthen the program." 

And enrollment will not begin until "the summer of 2020 or once the secretary has certified that the new IT system is fully implemented," VA said in a news release.

“Caregivers play a critical role in the health and well-being of some of our most vulnerable Veterans,” VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said in a statement. “Under the MISSION Act, we are strengthening and expanding our program to positively impact the lives of veterans and deliver the best customer experience to them and their caregivers.”

But in a hearing in April, Wilkie told Congress "I do expect to come to this Congress by the deadline of Oct. 1, hopefully certifying that the commercial, off-the-shelf technology we purchased to support caregivers is in place ... I'm not going to certify anything that doesn't work. We've been down that road before." 

The first veterans eligible to enroll will be those "who incurred or aggravated a serious injury in the line of duty on or before May 7, 1975." 

Those injured from 1975 until 2001 will have to wait another two years after that, VA said Wednesday.

The VA caregiver program has been troubled.  An OIG report in 2018 found that "most veterans were made to wait too long" to be approved for the program. It also showed VA made $4.8 million in improper payments to caregivers not eligible for the program, dropped veterans from the program with little explanation and failed to monitor those veterans' health and wellbeing afterward. 

VA cut caregivers from program despite expansion plans; this bill aims to help

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Reach Abbie Bennett: or @AbbieRBennett.