Tech Problems Delay Rollout of Expanded VA Caregiver Program

Juan Dominguez and his wife, Alexis, hold hands during the unveiling of a “smart home” donated to him and his family, Sept. 11, 2012. (U.S. Marine Corps/Jacob H. Harrer)
Juan Dominguez and his wife, Alexis, hold hands during the unveiling of a “smart home” donated to him and his family, Sept. 11, 2012. (U.S. Marine Corps/Jacob H. Harrer)

The technology infrastructure that will support expansion of the Veterans Affairs Department's program for caregivers of injured veterans will not be ready until at least mid- to late 2020, delaying a program that would provide a stipend and health benefits to thousands who care for seriously injured pre-9/11 veterans.

VA officials said Monday that the information technology systems needed to widen the Program of Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers, which missed an Oct. 1, 2018 progress deadline, will not be certified by the congressionally required deadline of Oct. 1, 2019.

Instead, VA is looking to the end of fiscal 2020 to have the system in place -- a requirement for expanding a program that has helped more than 38,000 injured post-9/11 veterans and their families.

The VA Mission Act of 2018 mandated that VA create and certify the IT system needed to support an expansion of the program to include veterans from earlier wars. Congress inserted the requirement into the law to prevent similar problems to those seen last year when thousands of veterans didn't receive housing payments related to the Forever GI Bill because of technology system challenges and an aging technology infrastructure at VA.

This delay means that caregivers of veterans the Vietnam War and earlier will not be able to apply for the program as expected starting Oct. 1. By law, applications were to be phased in with those veterans eligible first. Those who served from May 1975 through Sept. 11, 2001 were to become eligible two years later.

A VA official said the department is "doing something no one else in the world has done for caregivers" and asked that veterans, caregivers and the public understand the scope of the effort.

"My concern is that if the message out there is 'this is a delay in IT,' it infers that this is something easy to do ... this is a huge endeavor to expand this population as wide as we are doing," the official said during a briefing on the budget with reporters.

Caregivers enrolled in the VA program receive a stipend, health care coverage, training, counseling and access to respite care.

Last month, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington, and 10 other Senate Democrats sent a letter to VA Secretary Robert Wilkie voicing concerns over the delay and issues with the current program, which, in the past several years, has seen many caregivers pushed out of the program or their benefits downgraded. Veterans and their caregivers had reported arbitrary dismissals and inconsistent applications of the law across the VA.

VA is reviewing the program to ensure that it provides benefits to those who need them the most. It's also preparing for what could be an avalanche of applications. According to the VA, more than 38,000 caregivers have been helped by the program since it was established in 2011, at a cost of more than $900 million a year.

In December, VA suspended all discharges and downgrades from the program to review how VA health care facilities manage and implement the program nationwide.

The pause was the second since the program was created.

In their letter to VA, the senators said they commended the department for suspending the discharges and downgrades, adding that it was Congress's intention for veterans whose independence improved to graduate from the program.

But, they added, "documented evidence of wide-ranging inconsistency and clear inexcusable errors in VA's eligibility decisions must be corrected."

The senators also asked for an update on the status of the information technology program for expansion and urged VA to consider using a commercial off-the-shelf program.

"We urge you to immediately expedite these efforts," they wrote.

Murray said last week that VA had failed to respond.

The VA's proposed f$220 billion fiscal 2020 budget includes $8.9 billion to implement the Mission Act, to include providing community health care and urgent care for veterans as well as $150 million to expand the caregiver program.

The request fully funds the expected caregiver population once the IT is certified and ready, a VA official said.

-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter at @patriciakime.

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