After an extra year wait, caregivers of veterans who served during the Vietnam War or earlier can now apply for support benefits for the first time.

Veterans Affairs officials announced the expected change in the Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers Thursday afternoon after leaders officially notified Congress that the department’s information technology systems were ready for the new applications.

The move could give thousands of dollars in stipends each month to caregivers who for years have assisted elderly and infirm veterans without any financial assistance. Prior to today, only caregivers of veterans injured after Sept. 11, 2001, were eligible for the program.

“Caregivers provide stability and security to our most vulnerable veterans, allowing them to stay in their homes with their loved ones for as long as possible,” VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said in a statement. “Through this expansion, VA is able to give more family caregivers access to essential resources so we can support them as they care for veterans of earlier eras.”

Advocates have pushed for the change for years, arguing that the current program excludes too many caregivers providing valuable and life-changing assistance to disabled veterans.

Congress mandated the change in the Mission Act, signed into law in June 2018, but VA officials delayed the start date by a year because of concerns about processing the expected influx of new applications.

About 20,000 veterans were participating in the VA program at the start of this summer. Officials have estimated the expansion could grant monthly stipends to more than 41,000 new veteran families in coming years, and cost about $3 billion over the next five years.

Under the expansion rules, caregivers of veterans injured on military duty before May 7, 1975, will be eligible to receive the stipends after their applications are approved. Veterans in the remaining group — those injured in the line of duty between May 7, 1975, and Sept. 11, 2001 — will have to wait until October 2022 to apply for the benefit.

Only veterans with a service-connected disability rating of 70 percent or higher are eligible for the program, but their disability can be the result of an in-service injury, or a connected illness or disease.

In anticipation of the program’s growth, VA officials have grown their Caregiver Support Program staff to about 1,100 personnel, and expect to hire about 700 more staff in the next six months.

In a statement, the department said the changes will “ensure veterans and caregivers receive timely, accurate assessments and eligibility determinations, as well as an improved customer experience.”

More information on applying for the program is available on the VA’s web site.

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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