In its written testimony submitted Feb. 9 to the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, The American Legion noted “there is still much work to be done” on improving the Department of Veterans Affairs fiduciary program.
The Legion recognized VA’s recent efforts to improve the program, which appoints fiduciaries who act on behalf of mentally incompetent veterans or surviving spouses in managing their finances. This includes the responsibility of managing VA monetary benefits to ensure the beneficiary’s debts are paid and other needs are taken care of, such as food, clothing and personal items.
Lori Perkio, assistant director of the Legion’s Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation Division, submitted the testimony at the hearing, which included anecdotes -- taken from her previous work as a department service officer for the Legion – that underscored some ongoing problems with fiduciary program. In one example, VA denied the request of one man to be appointed as his father’s fiduciary – although he already had power of attorney. Someone else became fiduciary in September 2011 and received a VA benefits check about three months later for $385,966. Since back payments were not expected, the fiduciary contacted VA and the situation is still being investigated. In the meantime, the veteran in question can’t get access to his own money.
In another instance, a veteran applied for pension benefits in 2009. Next year, his application was upgraded to a disability benefits claim under newly added presumptive conditions for Agent Orange exposure. In March 2011, VA estimated the veteran’s back pay was $163,256 but withheld it and, instead, made a rating decision that found the veteran to be mentally incompetent. VA waited until last October to inform him of their decision, and the veteran later died while waiting for VA to appoint his sister as fiduciary.
“These two examples provide insight into cases where close family members are already providing close care to these veterans ...,” Perkio’s testimony stated, “yet these veterans still must wait months and even years to receive hundreds of thousands of dollars in benefits.
“We cannot keep veterans from benefits belonging to them, and sadly these cases are not unique. American Legion service officers come across stories like these on a regular basis and have been all too eager to share these stories, in the hopes that some good will come towards reforming this system.”
While VA is adding another 58 field examiners to the current 310 in its fiduciary program, the Legion noted those workers were not new hires, but were being pulled from other areas of the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA).
Perkio noted in her testimony that, since the Legion previously testified on the same issue in April 2010, the number of days that VA takes to appoint fiduciaries has dropped from 45 to 38. At the same time, the number of days it takes for VA follow-up visits has gone up from 120 to 151 days.
In 2010, The American Legion recommended that VA hire an additional full-time employee for each of its Regional Offices and Pension Maintenance Centers, dedicated solely to management and oversight of the fiduciary program. Such has not been done, and Perkio stated in her testimony that, “The American Legion continues to urge Congress to ensure VBA hires a Fiduciary Program Coordinator to work within each Regional Office to improve coordination between Fiduciary Hubs, ROs and Field Examiners.”
Perkio restated other recommendations the Legion made nearly two years ago, including a software upgrade to enhance fiduciary program communications, and a requirement that any VA-appointed fiduciary resides within a 300-mile radius of the beneficiary.