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Witness Testimony of Katherine R. Pflanz, on behalf of American Federation of Government Employees, AFL-CIO, Field Examiner, Winston-Salem Veterans Affairs Regional Office, and AFGE National Veterans Affairs Council

Dear Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee:

The American Federation of Government Employees, AFL-CIO (AFGE) and the AFGE National Veterans Affairs Council (NVAC), the exclusive representatives of VBA employees working in the Fiduciary Program, appreciate the opportunity to present the views of front line employees on how to better protect vulnerable veterans and their families.

RECOMMENDATION: PROVIDE NATIONALLY UNIFORM, FORMALIZED TRAINING ON FIDUCIARY ISSUES

AFGE and NVAC agree with the Government Accountability Office (GAO) recommendation for a national training program for the Fiduciary Program.  Field Examiners (FE) and Legal Instrument Examiners (LIE) need formal training prior to assuming their responsibilities and refresher training at least every 2 years. 

Standardized formal training is also an invaluable tool to form bonds with co-workers across the nation and share lessons learned and best practices. A national Q&A mailbox or employee-only website could facilitate ongoing sharing of information.  This teaching tool would be a timesaver and improve quality for the employees trying to protect beneficiaries in receipt of VA benefits.

New employee training should be centralized, as it is for Rating Specialists and Veterans Service Representatives (VSR). Currently, the initial training for new FEs is woefully inadequate, consisting only of online course,  without being able to ask questions of an instructor or supervisor.  This online curriculum is only designed to explain how fiduciary process works, e.g. conducting field exams, and does not address other critical issues, such as entitlement to pensions and other benefits.  Only those FEs who have previously worked as VSRs received formal training on benefits, which is important to ensuring the beneficiary is receiving all the funds to which they are entitled. 

On-the-job training needs to be standardized.  New FEs are sent out to the field to observe other FEs conducting interviews. While this is helpful, there is no standardization to ensure that all new FEs have sufficient exposure to different types of cases.  

Inadequate new employee training slows production, increases errors, and causes undue duplication of work.  Often times more experienced FEs and LIEs must  interrupt their own work to answer questions or correct errors.

Training for experienced employees is minimal and haphazard. VBA no longer provides centralized training that bring FEs into one location, e.g. RO, regional or national sites, for face-to-face instruction. Ongoing training often consists of conference calls where management merely points out common errors, local policy changes, and the newest hot topic.  This limited time does not provide for proper guidance on correcting errors.  Also, significant changes in policies and procedures are implemented without proper training or input from front line employees. 

RECOMMENDATION: DISCONTINUE THE HUB PILOT PROGRAM

AFGE and NVAC have serious concerns about the Hub Pilot Program.  This model has had serious ramifications; it has adversely affected training, case management, case tracking, and the proper application of different state rules.         

The Fiduciary Program works with a special population and it is critical that the employees oversee all their needs, not just their money. The RO model facilitates that oversight far better than the Hub model.  At the RO, staff has tighter control over the accounting process, and is able to work much more closely with both the veteran and the payee to ensure the beneficiary lives the best life possible. 

RECOMMENDATION: INCREASE STAFFING AND REVISE THE WORK CREDIT SYSTEM AND PERFORMANCE STANDARDS

The Fiduciary Program is facing increased demand for its services, especially among OIF/OEF veterans returning from two wars and an aging veteran population from earlier conflicts. In addition, due to our mobile society and current economic difficulties, many families are less able to assist disabled beneficiaries physically or financially than they were in the past. Families look more and more to VBA to protect disabled beneficiaries.

Additional FE hiring has begun but more is needed. FEs are always working frantically to meet their production standards, ensure quality, maintain personal safety, and keep apprised of all the new changes.  The expectation is that this can be accomplished with inadequate training, experience, and within an 8 hour day.  The current performance standards are unrealistic for the tools currently provided to the Fiduciary staff.  When overtime is offered, it frequently raises the production expectation which is already unobtainable to the less experienced.

Managers also need training on the workings of the Fiduciary program, as well as employee issues such as personal safety and workers compensation claims for injuries incurred in the field.

As a result of inadequate management, understaffing, unrealistic performance standards, and lack of  training, the Fiduciary Unit is less able to properly serve and protect those who need our protection the most in today’s environment.

RECOMMENDATION: IMPROVE ACCESS TO IT TOOLS AND OTHER NEEDED EQUIPMENT

AFGE and NVAC agree with GAO’s recommendation for more efficient automated tools, including more informative reports from the Fiduciary Beneficiary System. In addition, there are a number of problems with National Field Examiner Report Generator Program. Although this system  was intended to increase uniformity in the process of typing field exams, in practice, it is a difficult system to use and dramatically increases the time required to type reports.   For example, FEs spend substantial time deleting information from the Initial Appointment Report for follow up reports, and the system lacks separate templates for reports for Adult Helpless Children, Insurance Cases and Minors. If FEs on the front lines had been involved in the design and testing of this system before it was rolled out, it would function more effectively.

FEs are not provided with other needed equipment on a sufficient or timely basis.  There are frequent delays in issuing government vehicles, thus requiring some FEs to share vehicles.  As a result, both the well being of the beneficiary and FE timeliness suffer.

Phone access is an essential part of the FE's job each and every day, all day long. They have to schedule appointments, find beneficiaries, get information over the phone from legal custodians, and in some cases, the entire field exam is conducted by phone. Currently, the cell phones that are provided to FEs often lack adequate geographic coverage.  FEs should have a long distance phone card as back up.

In addition, travel funds that FEs need to manage their casework are often difficult to obtain due to budget constraints.

RECOMMENDATION: PROVIDE MORE EXPERIENCED LEADERSHIP

The Fiduciary Program is facing a serious lack of experienced coaches to mentor employees.  Front line employees are being trained and supervised by managers who do not fully understand the fiduciary rules and regulations. Coaching is only effective if done by someone with extensive hands-on experience and subject matter expertise.

Too often, the message from management is “get it done” to make production without an understanding of the mechanics.  This approach hurts both beneficiaries and the Fiduciary Unit. If managers had more direct experience on the front lines, they would  have more realistic expectations of what is required and how long it takes to do the job correctly.

RECOMMENDATION: REVISE REVIEW EXAMINATION SCHEDULES

FEs are unnecessarily burdened with conducting annual field review of claims in cases that already demonstrate accurate discharging of the fiduciary responsibilities, thus  preventing them from completing work needed for other claims,  AFGE and NVAC do not advocate complete elimination of the field review, but rather, many can be done less frequently or on a random basis. The current limitation on review examinations that are input in two or five year increments should be lifted; less frequent exams are recommended where there are no questions of impropriety or uncertainty about the fiduciary’s conduct.

For example, currently, FEs are required to visit beneficiaries in Adult Living Facilities every three years. These beneficiaries should be reclassified as “institutionalized”, which would reduce the requirement to a phone call every six years.  This would suffice because the VA benefits are totally consumed by cost of care and all their housing and medical needs are being met in a safe manner.  Also, these facilities are monitored by other federal, state and local agencies.

More infrequent visits to beneficiaries with dementia who are in the locked section of the facility would also suffice. More generally, in cases like these, it would be more effective to make unannounced visits on a random schedule in addition to scheduled audits.

VBA could also eliminate field exams for beneficiaries receiving small amounts of funds, e.g. the old law pension rate of $61, or anyone receiving less than the 30% compensation rate. When beneficiaries are given the entire VA benefit for person spending, they are in effect managing their own funds. Visits for spouse payees receiving less than the 30% rate could be replaced by an occasional call or letter.

Annual follow-up exams for accounting cases should be conducted on a 14-15 month basis to allow for accountings to be reviewed and problems to be addressed.  Follow up field exams should be limited to problem cases.

RECOMMENDATION: IMPROVE COMMUNICATION WITH OTHER AGENCIES

Although FEs are only responsible for ensuring the proper use of VA funds, they are also expected to detect misuse of other benefits such as Social Security and military retirement pay. We urge Congress to improve the lines of communication between the Fiduciary Program and other agencies to enable FEs to alert them to problems. National dissemination of reports from Field Examiners at other agencies would help VBA understand the proper use of those benefits.

Currently, Social Security and VBA have a joint program for incarcerated beneficiaries; a joint program based on this model for Field Examiner fiduciary selection and monitoring should be considered.

In contrast, we believe that FEs should not be held accountable for informing beneficiaries about non-VA rules or benefits such as park passes and fishing and hunting licenses; this should be carried out by local Veterans Service Organizations. 

RECOMMENDATION: INCREASE EMPLOYEE INPUT INTO NEW POLICIES AND PRACTICES

Frontline Fiduciary Program employees are rarely given the opportunity to make suggestions, and when given that opportunity, their suggestions are often not seriously considered. Some employees feel that they have been chastised or ostracized for making suggestions.

This program will be greatly improved by input from the people who actually know the job -- the ones on the front lines who go into beneficiaries’ homes and nursing facilities on a daily basis. Currently, management is making all the decisions based on what they feel is best. The front line employees are forced to simply follow their lead.   Managers make many significant decisions during conference calls without considering the effect on FEs and LIEs. Decisions that change nationwide directives should not be made without input from the field.  FEs and LIEs should be included in these conference calls.  It is too difficult for the managers to communicate all the changes and directives after the call takes place. 

Minutes of a meeting should not be policy. Rather, the Fiduciary Program should adopt the approach used for Rating Specialists and VSRs to issue Fast Letters accompanied by explanations, directives, and guidelines.

OTHER RECOMMENDATIONS

Workforce Recruitment and Retention: The current senior FE career ladder -- that tops out at a GS -11-- is not aligned with recently added FE responsibilities.  The decisions made by FEs are more consistent with the complexity and impact of decisions made by IRS Officers and INS agents whose career ladders top out at a GS-12.. LIEs should also receive have a career ladder that is aligned with that of a VSR.  Finally, the agency should pay the full cost of FE liability protection against civil suits; currently, FEs have to pay half the cost.

Guidance to Fiduciaries: A subject matter expert should teach a structured course on an initial or quarterly basis to inform fiduciaries of applicable requirements and their responsibilities. The course should include a hands-on component. Their travel costs and lost time from work should be reimbursed.

Quality Assurance: AFGE and NVAC commend VBA for centralizing Quality Reviews to increase their consistency, but better training is also needed to reduce errors. STAR reviews have become punitive in recent years; they are now part of Directors Dashboard, and therefore can make or break a performance rating.  This also requires employees to focus on quantity far more than quality.

Time Frames for Selection of Fiduciaries: Current time frames for completion of initial appointments of fiduciary are not sufficient. Given new parameters that apply (with more stringent accounting and oversight), it takes more than 45 calendar days to select proper fiduciaries who will serve the veteran’s best interests. This 45 day timeframe fails to take into account logistics, and the fact that compliance with our requests (including scheduling of appointments and returning paperwork) is largely voluntary.

Case Files: Since there is no need to see the fiduciary after the initial appointment, the Principal Guardianship File (PGF)  should be kept where the beneficiary is, especially because the FE at that regional office completes the exam. It is difficult to compare finances and accountings without the file. In the alternative, the file could be accessed electronically as part of the Virtual VA, which would be especially helpful if the fiduciary resides in a different state than the beneficiary.

Improve coordination with state courts.  Frequently, state courts appoint a fiduciary before VBA gets involved in the case. Problems sometimes arise when VBA appoints its own fiduciary, and the court dispenses funds in violation of VBA’s restrictions that apply to the VA-derived portion.  Better coordination between the courts and the Fiduciary Unit is needed to reduce the incidence of this problem.

 Thank you for the opportunity to testify on this important matter.