Severely injured veterans from World War II through Vietnam who need around-the-clock care from a family member or friend won't be able to apply for the VA's Family Caregiver Program until "summer of 2020," the Department of Veterans Affairs announced Wednesday.
The new estimate for enrollment is based on the department's expectations for establishing a new information technology system to handle the expansion, as well as making other improvements, including hiring more staff, before adding beneficiaries.
As part of the 2018 VA Mission Act, Congress required the VA to expand the program to veterans from previous wars. By law, the VA must have the IT system certified before it can grow the program.
The department was supposed to have the system in place by Oct. 1, 2018, with subsequent enrollment of veterans by Oct. 1, 2019. But it missed both deadlines, saying earlier this year it expected the new system wouldn't be ready until the end of fiscal 2020.
The new timeline will likely disappoint caregivers of veterans who served before May 7, 1975 -- the first planned expansion. Many had hoped they'd begin receiving support, health benefits and a stipend for providing care and assistance to their loved ones starting this year.
VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said the department wants to “strengthen and expand our program to … deliver the best customer experience” for veterans and their caregivers.
"Caregivers play a critical role in the health and well-being of some of our most vulnerable veterans," he said in a statement.
The VA Family Caregiver Program currently provides benefits to those who care for seriously injured veterans wounded in combat or whose service-connected injuries have been aggravated, preventing them from performing activities of daily living by themselves, or who need supervision.
Caregivers can be a spouse, parent, child, family member or individual who lives with the veteran. The program has helped 38,000 post-9/11 veterans and their caregivers and currently costs more than $900 million a year.
The plan is to expand the program to severely injured veterans of all eras, with the expansion to include those who served from May 1975 through Sept. 10, 2011, to occur two years after the Vietnam era and earlier veterans begin enrolling.
Under the timeline provided by the VA in a release Wednesday, it expects to roll out the new IT system, called the Caregiver Record Management Application, or CARMA, next month. In January, VA staff will prepare the system needed to manage stipends and, by summer, program applications from the new group will be accepted.
Congress instilled requirements for the IT certification to ensure that the system would support more caregivers and prevent problems such as failing to pay bills, which happened last year to some veterans using the GI Bill.
Also last year, after finding that criteria for eligibility for the Family Caregiver Program were not being uniformly applied to everyone enrolled in the program, the VA suspended all discharges and downgrades while VA officials reviewed program implementation.
VA officials said that, since the suspension of discharges, it has held listening sessions with caregivers as well as those who manage the program and have changed operating procedures to ensure that VA staff is uniformly executing the benefit.
It also plans to publish a proposed rule in the Federal Register for public comment on planned changes to the program, VA officials said.