$12 million later, VA's VR&E case-management system still incomplete

The American Legion issued a statement for the record ahead of the May 17 hearing on VA's Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment (VR&E) program before the Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity. The program provides vital services to veterans with service-connected disabilities to “achieve maximum independence in daily living, become employable, and maintain suitable employment,” according to the statement.

Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Jodey Arrington, R-Texas, in his opening remarks stated that the VR&E "program should be the crown jewel of benefits provided to veterans.” However, Arrington continued, the program is strapped by budget constraints, saying they’ve “flatlined” despite the number of program participants increasing as the VA continues to move through the backlog of disability claims.

“This subcommittee has continued to sound the alarm on this issue, and I’m worried that our concerns are falling on deaf ears,” he said.

A key concern, highlighted by both The American Legion and the chairman, is the vocational counselor-to-caseload ratio. The ratio reached one counselor per 136.4 cases in 2017, making it unlikely the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) will meet the congressionally requested ratio of one counselor per 125 veterans. Per The American Legion’s statement, VR&E would need to add 266 full-time employees (FTE), increasing the workforce to a total of 1,550 FTEs, to meet the requested ratio. Instead, only a quarter of the requested FTEs were added and the VR&E request for direct personnel was frozen through 2019. In addition to personnel shortages, funds allocated for overtime were slashed by nearly 50 percent, further stifling counselors’ ability to assist veterans in need.

Another issue brought up by the chairman is the oversight of the new case management system for tracking VR&E participants. The case management tool remains incomplete after nearly three years of work, $6.5 million paid to a contractor and $5.5 million in VA staff time and resources. Because of these issues, the VA is now considering cutting the system altogether, amounting to a loss of millions in taxpayer dollars.

“I can only think of all the veterans that could’ve been helped if this money wasn’t wasted, where we could invest $12 million and how we could better serve our heroes,” Arrington said.

The subcommittee was not informed of the problems when the system was initially flagged in December, according to Arrington. Rather, they were informed the week before of the issues in anticipation of the hearing.

“It’s clear this project has gone off the rails due to a number of issues,” he said. “Not the least of which is the breakdown in communication between VR&E and their policy staff and the IT team.”

Jack Kammerer, director of the VR&E, testified before the subcommittee on the current state and the future of the program. While Kammerer noted improvements in the counselor-caseload ratio, he also brought up how VBA, VR&E and the Office of Information Technology (OIT) are “exploring alternatives to determine the most cost-effective and efficient way to deliver a modern case management system” — a development which has consumed $12 million in taxpayer dollars.

“VR&E will continue to improve the delivery of vocation rehabilitation services to our most-deserving population — that is our veterans with service-connected disabilities,” he said, concluding his remarks.

Arrington asked Kammerer about the success rate of the program. Kammerer noted VR&E has positive outcome rate of nearly 50 percent, up eight percent from last year.

Ranking member of the subcommittee Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-Texas, asked, “Is it true this began in 2015, that to date we’ve spent $12 million, and we still don’t have an operable system?”

“Yes, sir. That’s true,” answered Lloyd Thrower of OIT. Moreover, Thrower could not give an answer when he was asked when the project would be complete and what the total cost would be.

“I would argue that maybe we should stop digging until we have an answer on this and a budget set for it," O’Rourke said. “You’re not inspiring confidence. Not you personally, just this process so far and the explanation for it.”