Congress grills VA on years long delay on caregiver benefits expansion for pre-9/11 veterans

Abbie Bennett
May 22, 2019 - 7:55 am

Image courtesy of RAND

Congress approved legislation expanding the Department of Veterans Affairs caregivers program to pre-9/11 veterans, but holdups at the VA have prevented those veterans from taking advantage of their new benefits.

At a joint hearing of the House Veterans Affairs subpanels on health and technology, members of Congress pushed for answers from VA representatives on the IT system being developed to roll out the program for older veterans.

“This IT program is the only thing standing between veterans and their caregivers,” said Rep. Julia Brownley, D-Calif., chairwoman of the health subcommittee, adding that there was originally a October 2018 deadline for the program, but “VA missed that deadline.”

“Why, after five years, has VA been unable to replace a faulty IT system?” Brownley said, asking what assurances were in place to ensure that pre-9/11 veterans can get the care they’re entitled to.

“We made a promise,” she said. “Now let’s keep it.”

Rep. Susie Lee, D-N.V., chairwoman of the technology subcommittee, said the United States made promises to veterans “to provide them with the best care and services we can.

“We shouldn’t make it harder than it needs to be,” she said. “When is the VA going to commit to getting it right and not make the same mistakes?”

Lee was referring to previous technology system rollouts by the VA, such as the massive failure of the Forever GI Bill implementation last year, that led to missed critical payments to student veterans, some of whom were evicted from their homes.

“Repeatedly making these same mistakes is frustrating and damaging to the people we intend to help,” Lee said. “I have the same questions about every VA IT system.”

"Caregivers enable veterans to maintain their highest level of independence and remain in their homes and communities for as long as possible,” said Dr. Steven Lieberman, acting principal deputy undersecretary for health at the VHA.

This is the fourth effort to build an expanded caregiver system, Lee said, “with uncertain timelines and uncertain deliverables.”

It was that uncertain timeline that other members of the panels focused on at the hearing, pressing VA leadership about when the system will be ready, emphasizing that it is “unacceptable” that five years have passed and the program still does not have the system needed to expand care to thousands of veterans.  

The VA still hasn’t said when it plans to certify the IT system and Government Accountability Office leadership said they see “no end date.”

“The veterans out there really don’t care (about the process to implement the system),” House Veterans Affairs Committee ranking member Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., said. “What they and I want to know is when we can sign the first one up (pre-9/11 veteran). This is affecting a generation that is dying at hundreds per day.”

But VA leadership said they don’t have a launch date for the IT system and added that  “we can’t commit to a date at this time.”

Alan Constantian, spokesman for VA IT, said the current system was developed to accommodate about 5,000 caregivers and is accommodating more than 20,000 today.

“We don’t believe the current technology is capable of expanding beyond that,” he said.

Rep. Andy Barr, R-Ky., said the veterans he knows “would be disappointed after eight years, three failed efforts and millions of dollars sink in cost if there were here today.”

Brownley said Congress made its intention clear that it wanted to expand caregiver benefits to “every single veteran deserving of it, who meets the qualifications."

“If there is any effort on the VA’s part to reduce this program, squeeze it into an underfunded budget, this committee is going to be very, very angry.”

 

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