Witness Testimony of Richard F. Weidman, Vietnam Veterans of America, Executive Director for Policy and Government Affairs
Good afternoon, Mr. Chairman. Thank you for the opportunity to appear here today to share our concerns and thoughts regarding concerns as to how the Veterans Benefits Administration is managing the Fiduciary program. This program is designed to protect some of our most vulnerable veterans. Unfortunately it appears that the program as currently operated falls far short of accomplishing that goal.
The basis of our comments today are based on the Inspector General’s Report (IG) 09-1999-120, dated Match 31, 2010, and on the General Accountability Office Report GAO-10-241, dated February of 2010, as well as anecdotal evidence gleaned from our local leaders and service representatives around the nation.
First and foremost it is clear that there is no coherent plan for getting a handle on the parameters of this problem. VA simply does not know who is responsible for each veteran involved. Many of these veterans have major impairments because of schizophrenia or other condition that means that they are unable to properly care for themselves to the point that someone else needs to take charge of their financial affairs for their protection and well being. Seen from this perspective, they are the protectors of these veterans. Yet VA apparently does not know exactly who is responsible for each veteran, and is not doing even a reasonable job of monitoring to ensure that each and every veteran is properly cared for in regard to their safety and general well being. The first step is getting a handle on who is the fiduciary for each and every veteran involved in the program.
Second, it would appear that there are not clear guidelines on who should be a fiduciary, i.e., meaningful minimum standards and determination of eligibility for same. It is clear that such standards and certification are needed, hopefully without creating a needlessly bureaucratic mass of red tape. It also appears that there is a need for training and quality assurance mechanisms that would be appropriate.
Third, what is perhaps most distressing about the IG report referred to above is the lack of follow through and implementation of many (most?) of the recommendations in the IG Report from 2006 had not been actually implemented as pledged by the Veterans Benefits Administration in their Agency response to that 2006 report.
Fourth, because the majority of the more than 100, 00 veterans who have fiduciary agents are in poor mental and/or physiological health, there should be regular communication between Veterans Health Administration (VHA) personnel and whoever is acting as fiduciary agent/guardian. Unless we missed it, monitoring of health condition does not even appear to be one of the key factors in any evaluation of this program. Is the living situation for the veteran appropriate or not, given his/her disabilities? Is he/she getting to regular appointments at VHA?
Fifth, the aggregate amount of monthly income is very significant for the veterans in this program. The size of the aggregate estate of these veterans combined is at least several billion dollars. Any time there is that kind of money there had better be accountability mechanisms to ensure that it is being used for the intended purpose(S). To not have clear guidelines and consistent monitoring only invites misuse and misappropriation of these funds. There appears to be so little in the way of effective tracking and oversight of this program that VA does not have any idea if the funds are being used correctly. This is akin to shipping $10 Billion in cash into the war zone in Iraq and then acting surprised that they could only account for less than a third of the money. It is not a prudent or wise thing to do.
Sixth, the GAO report is much more complete and thoughtful than the IG report, and is clearer as to the problems, although both overlooked one key thing that may in fact be widespread. We hear anecdotal cases about attorneys or others who are acting as agents/guardians for many veterans whom they have never met except over the telephone. It seems pretty clear to us that these people are getting more than the 4% of funds being handled in the name of the veteran. In fact the record keeping at the VBA does not appear to even be to the level where this can even be monitored or detected. Looked at from both a fiscal point of view as well as a human point of view, this must change.
To not make a significant effort to put such a system in place as quickly as possible (in real time, not traditional VA time) would be irresponsible, and leave many of our most vulnerable veterans subject to abuse and theft of resources that is rightfully theirs.
To essentially almost start over is the theme of much of what this committee has heard in testimony the last few years about the Compensation & Pension system for adjudication of claims. VVA suggests that this is essentially the case with this program. There is finally progress toward straightening out the C&P system because VA has admitted that they have a problem, and is now recognizing that the VBA must treat the Veterans Service Organizations (VSO) as well as state and local partners as true equal partners in this process of reform. We suggest that the same holds true for the fiduciary program at VA.
Rightly or wrongly the VA has received much criticism for the problems in the C&P system, to the point that many consider it a scandal that we have come to the sorry situation we all find ourselves with that system. I would suggest that this program is a major scandal just waiting to happen.
The welfare of the individual veterans who are least able to fend for him/her self should be enough to drive immediate reform. Added to that primary responsibility is the need to properly account for taxpayer dollars, and the VA and Congressional responsibility to ensure those funds are being used correctly for the welfare of the intended recipients.
Thank you for this opportunity to present our views here today. I will be happy to answer any questions.