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Hearing on the Va Fiduciary program

Hearing on the Va Fiduciary program

Chairman Johnson, Ranking Member Donnelly, and Members of the Subcommittee:

Wounded Warrior Project (WWP) applauds your holding this hearing, and appreciates the opportunity to submit this statement for the record.  Through our long work with severely-wounded veterans and their family caregivers, many of whom are fiduciaries, WWP brings a unique understanding to the operation, and shortcomings, of VA’s Fiduciary Program. 

We commend to your attention the testimony of Pam Estes, a dedicated mother and caregiver of her wounded warrior son, Jason, who has for years also served as a fiduciary to manage his VA compensation.  The frustration evident in Mrs. Estes’ statement mirrors that of many family caregivers who struggle to do the best for their wounded loved ones.  While these caregiver-fiduciaries generally understand VA’s oversight responsibility to the beneficiary – they often are left to feel as though they are suspect, and subject to a rigid, intrusive, and sometimes even unreasonable process that ignores abundant evidence of their dedication to their loved one.

Pam Estes’ experience is anything but unique.  But it is a telling comment on the management of this program, its requirements have been problematic for an individual with a background in accounting!

The experience of other caregivers is instructive.  Asked to describe their experience with the fiduciary program, one caregiver-fiduciary responded:

“They don’t really help with management [of assets] but audit every two years every penny I spend for my son’s care.  [There are] not many guidelines and auditors question expenses when they know nothing about the care needed, [such as asking,] why am I buying him movies and music when he has a brain injury….really?”

A New Mexico caregiver questions the intense level of detail VA requires, noting that she is also a fiduciary for her son’s SSDI benefits, but that in contrast to VA:

“Social Security accounting paperwork is simple.  They have two categories: 1. Food and housing, and 2. Clothing, education, medical and dental, recreation or personal items.  No bank statement or bank signatures are needed.  If this were the case with the VA, [reporting] would not be an issue.”

Another draws a similar contrast, commenting:

“Each year I am required by the Social Security Administration to file a formal fiduciary accountability report.  [Unlike VA’s requirements,] it is user-friendly, quick and inclusive of necessary pertinent information.

VA’s demanding requirements are not only difficult, fiduciaries report that they are on their own:

“When the paperwork arrived at the end of the year, there were no instructions or assistance to do it.  I had to figure out how to do everything on my own.  I asked for software that I could use to make it easier to do the accounting but I was told there was none.  I had to create an excel spreadsheet to enter in the amounts in the categories that were requested, and sometimes it takes me up to 2 weeks to complete all the data entry.”

Caregivers express frustration over the fact that, despite being closely and frequently monitored under the Veterans Health Administration’s Caregiver-Assistance Program, they are closely scrutinized again by the Veterans Benefits Administration:

“We are required to purchase, annually, a Surety Bond that costs roughly $500 to $600 to ‘protect the funds of the service member against the fiduciary’. I find this appalling.  We are financially responsible, debt-free, tax-paying ADULTS nearly 55 years old.  We have managed to pull our son out of all debt and have secured funds for his future and meet/exceed his daily needs responsibly.  When I'm forced to ‘line item’ Walmart receipts this is TOO far!  I have to ‘ask permission’ to pay property taxes and home owner insurances that run over $ 1,000.00. I  have to ask a stranger permission prior to making a purchase, and submit reasoning as to why it's needed.  [Under the Caregiver-Assistance Program] there is a VA representative that physically comes inside our home every 90 days that walks into every room (including my private bedroom and bath), checks every closet and cupboard, and refrigerator to ‘inspect’ the level of care our service member receives, and yet additionally we are probed yearly by a forensic accounting that seemingly investigates for ‘murderous’ infractions.” 

Others echo the sense of insecurity Pam Estes cited in her statement, aggravated when VA auditors are insensitive or threatening.  As one reported:

“[The auditor] went on to say that…it’s ‘the government’s money’ and since he is representing the government that he could tell me what to spend the money on and that our electric bill was too high and that during the summer in Florida that I shouldn’t run the A/C on at night!”

Understandably, VBA must be “on guard” in managing a fiduciary program.  But it does not seem to take account of the unique circumstances of family members who have devoted themselves to the full-time care of severely wounded warriors, and who also serve as their fiduciaries.  Parents and spouses of wounded warriors have made great sacrifices – often giving up careers and depleting savings -- to care for their loved ones.  Many have been appointed fiduciaries.  Their love and dedication to their wounded spouses and children does not change in any way by virtue of taking on new responsibilities as a fiduciary.

As we understand it, VA policy recognizes that all fiduciary cases do not require the same degree of attention and supervision, and that field examiners should consider the unique circumstances of each case.  But there appears to be wide variability in how or even whether examiners’ exercise that judgment in their work with family members who are not only fiduciaries for severely wounded veterans, but also their full-time caregivers.

It is tragic that parents and spouses who over time have surely proven their dedication to their loved one, and have taken on the responsibility to serve as fiduciaries, should have to deal with a system that still appears to be marked by rigidity, intrusiveness, demanding of unnecessarily detailed reporting, and unreasonableness when it conducts oversight of those caregivers in their role as the veteran’s fiduciary. 

VA Fiduciary Program policy should provide that a devoted family member who furnishes daily care for a severely wounded veteran should not be treated as an object of VA suspicion – either in terms of rigid management of their budgeting or intrusive home visits -- simply because the individual serves as the veteran’s fiduciary.  These families should be treated with dignity.  VBA should substantially revise its policy and practice to reflect far greater balance and understanding as it relates to caregiver-fiduciaries who have demonstrated that they do not pose significant risk and have earned VA’s trust.

VA officials have acknowledged a need for more training for the fiduciary program staff.  It should also better inform family members of their responsibilities in agreeing to serve as fiduciaries.  VBA officials led us to believe that they were committed to remedying the kinds of problems caregiver-fiduciaries have experienced.  But WWP is not aware of substantial remedial measures having been instituted, let alone of sensible steps whereby VBA could learn from VHA’s caregiver-monitoring that a family-caregiver who is also a fiduciary for the veteran is reliable and caring.

In short, a devoted family member who provides consistent, high-quality daily care for a severely wounded veteran has surely earned VA’s trust and should not be treated as an object of VA suspicion simply because the individual serves as the veteran’s fiduciary.  Families who have already earned VA’s trust should not be subjected to rigid budgeting, unnecessarily detailed accounting, ongoing intrusive scrutiny, or threatening warnings without substantial cause.  Finally, VA should work to achieve more uniform standards and greater consistency in its application of fiduciary oversight policy.