WASHINGTON — Caregivers for veterans of conflicts before the 9/11 terrorist attacks won’t receive congressionally mandated benefits until summer 2020 at the earliest, the Department of Veterans Affairs announced Wednesday.

The VA will miss its Oct. 1 deadline to establish the information technology needed to extend caregiver benefits to families of pre-9/11 veterans — a task that was to be completed last year. The missed deadline pushes back other target dates, delaying enrollment into the program until at least next summer.

Enrollment will begin “in the summer of 2020 or once the secretary has certified that the new IT system is fully implemented,” reads a statement from the VA.

“The continued delays in expanding the program demonstrate that these veterans and caregivers are simply not a priority,” Randy Reese, executive director of Disabled American Veterans, said in a statement. “The VA has now spent several years and millions of taxpayer dollars, abandoning potential solutions along the way, attempting to address IT deficiencies but has nothing to show except more excuses.”

The VA Mission Act, signed into law last year, ordered the department to extend benefits now available to caregivers for veterans of post-9/11 veterans to other eras. The benefits include monthly stipends, health insurance, medical training and access to home health aides.

Advocates fought for years to correct what they viewed as an unfair discrepancy. The Mission Act called for the VA to extend the benefits in two phases: first, to caregivers of older veterans – those injured before May 7, 1975; and two years later, to caregivers for veterans injured between 1975 and 2001.

During a hearing in April, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie discussed the Oct. 1 deadline, saying, “I do expect to come to this Congress by the deadline on Oct. 1, hopefully certifying that the commercial, off-the-shelf technology we purchased to support caregivers is in place.”

But, he added: “I’m not going to certify anything that doesn’t work. We’ve been down that road before.”

In a statement Wednesday, the VA said it would have the IT in place by January 2020 to automate payments for monthly stipends. The VA still plans to gradually enroll veterans, starting with those injured before 1975. Based on the new timeline, caregivers for veterans injured between 1975 and 2001 will wait until 2022.

The Elizabeth Dole Foundation, which aids veteran caregivers, advocated for the expansion of the program on Capitol Hill.

“The Elizabeth Dole Foundation is concerned that the expansion of caregiver benefits is being delayed once again,” its CEO, Steve Schwab, said Wednesday in a statement. “We must provide our pre-9/11 caregivers the benefits and support they deserve. We plan to hold the VA accountable as they target this new deadline. Pre-9/11 caregivers have been waiting long enough for the benefits they need, and we are committed to doing everything we can to push this forward.”

Disabled American Veterans, another group that helped push the legislation through Congress, said they were “extremely disappointed” by the delay.

“Even with today’s announcement, the VA has yet to offer a firm date on when they will open enrollment to older generations of veterans,” Reese said. “The health of these veterans continues to worsen over time, and their caregiving needs are only becoming more urgent. They cannot afford continued delays without risk of serious negative health and financial consequences.” Twitter: @nikkiwentling

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Nikki Wentling has worked for Stars and Stripes since 2016. She reports from Congress, the White House, the Department of Veterans Affairs and throughout the country about issues affecting veterans, service members and their families. Wentling, a graduate of the University of Kansas, previously worked at the Lawrence Journal-World and Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. The National Coalition of Homeless Veterans awarded Stars and Stripes the Meritorious Service Award in 2020 for Wentling’s reporting on homeless veterans during the coronavirus pandemic. In 2018, she was named by the nonprofit HillVets as one of the 100 most influential people in regard to veterans policymaking.

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