Thank you for inviting me to testify on VA’s Fiduciary Program, and for holding this hearing.
My name is Pam Estes. My life and my family’s life changed overnight in December 2005 when my son Jason sustained multiple severe injuries -- including severe traumatic brain injury, multiple leg fractures, a lower leg amputation, and second and third degree burns over 60% of his body -- as a result of an IED blast in Iraq. At the time of his injury Jason was only 19 years old. Since then, my husband Mike and I have been caregivers for Jason. I was appointed to serve as a fiduciary in 2007 as he was not able to manage his financial affairs.
As both a fiduciary for my son and a caregiver, I have had extensive experience in working with the Department of Veterans Affairs. In fact, I served for two years as a member of a VA Advisory Committee on OEF/OIF Veterans and Families established by former Secretary of Veterans Affairs Jim Nicholson. As a result, I have a good understanding of the Department and its programs. But my experience of dealing with the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA), as it relates to Jason’s VA compensation, contrasts sharply with the experience of working with the Veterans Health Administration (VHA), as it relates to my son’s care and to the administration of the VA Caregiver-assistance Program established by Congress in Public Law 111-163. While I have had very positive experiences with VHA, particularly in coordinating effectively with its case-managers surrounding Jason’s care, my experiences as a fiduciary in meeting – and even understanding -- VBA’s requirements have been disturbing.
I certainly understand that VBA has an important responsibility as it relates to safeguarding the benefits of veterans who are unable to manage their own affairs. While its Fiduciary Program unquestionably has an important mission, my own experience and that of other caregivers of wounded warriors lead me to question how effectively the program is managed.
Among the frustrations I have encountered in serving as a fiduciary has been the lack of information as to precisely what VBA needed and expected, and the “mixed signals” it has sent. Despite a lack of guidance, I maintained detailed documentation of expenditures for Jason, consistent with my background in accounting. But I was stunned in 2008 when, despite the lack of detailed VBA instructions, I received a letter from the VA Regional Office in Baltimore which cited my “failure to submit your timely accounting” as “constituting a breach of your fiduciary duty,” and threatened to remove me as a fiduciary. I found it extremely offensive to be painted as irresponsible when we’d been working so hard to do what’s best for Jason, including saving much of his money for the future when we’re not here to care for him. Following up on that letter, I ultimately met with a VA field auditor in September 2008 and explained that I had never received instructions about requirements for annual reporting, or applicable forms; I was relieved that that official accepted my detailed documentation and advised me that no further action was needed. Yet less than a year later I received another letter from a VA Regional Office official stating that I was delinquent, and this time directing me to submit on a VA form within 14 days an accounting of all expenditures for Jason going back to 2007. This letter again threatened that I risked being removed as a fiduciary. The VARO official’s letter also responded to an earlier letter of mine explaining that I had never received instructions on HOW to file annual accountings to VBA, and stated:
“In an ideal world, each year the computer would print you a letter and we would send you the letter and blank forms prior to your accounting date. It is supposed to work that way, but in real life doesn’t always.”
VBA’s “14-day reporting/or-else” directive prompted us to contact Wounded Warrior Project, which brought our situation to the attention of VBA Central Office officials and requested a meeting. My husband and I subsequently met with these officials, who were deeply apologetic. The meeting was instrumental in resolving the immediate problem, and we assumed, accordingly, that we would encounter no future difficulties. We were mistaken!
For the 2011 accounting period, I received a message from a supervisory official at the Baltimore VARO indicating that I was subject to a field audit this year. After back and forth messages, the visit had still not been scheduled. Fearing another delinquency, I submitted my annual accounting on December 5, 2011, and further sought to clarify VA policy regarding certain charges to be entered on that accounting form. In follow-up to the letter, I called and left messages, but received no response. On January 9th, however, I was shocked to receive a letter stating that I was delinquent in submitting the required accounting and threatening to remove me as Jason’s fiduciary if I did not comply within 30 days.
From the perspective of a mother of a very severely wounded warrior, VBA communications like this – suggesting that with the stroke of a pen I could be deemed “unqualified” and lose the right to manage my son’s finances -- are terribly stressful. Despite my being a loving caregiver, this program operates in a manner that leaves me feeling as though something threatening is always hanging over my head. Given that that’s been my experience, imagine what this process might be like for a young spouse without any background in recordkeeping let alone many years working in accounting! I understand the need for methodical recordkeeping and reporting in the interest of documenting appropriate financial management of Jason’s compensation. But I do not understand an agency that is so quick to threaten, so unresponsive to questions, so much of a “black hole.” Nor do I understand why VBA cannot better align its reporting requirements with the much less detailed and less burdensome level of reporting used by the Social Security Administration.
Some two and a half years ago, my husband Mike attended a Caregiver Summit here in Washington sponsored by Wounded Warrior Project. One of the most common and deeply felt concerns expressed by the caregiver-participants was with the VA Fiduciary Program, which many participants described in some detail as confusing, demeaning, highly intrusive and often unreasonable in disallowing expenditures. The then-Director of VA’s Compensation and Pension Service attended a session of the conference and, on hearing a presentation on these problems, promised Fiduciary Program reforms. It is not apparent to me that such reforms have taken place, or, if any steps were taken, that they have really taken hold.