Late Breaking News
Recent Investigations Question VA's Paid Fiduciary Program for Disabled Veterans
A Black Hole for Veterans
The system also can be a challenge for veterans and the family members who are, according to VA, the optimal choice to act as fiduciary.
Pam Estes, fiduciary for her son Jason, who was severely injured by an IED in Iraq, testified to the committee that VA has given her little guidance on her responsibilities yet, without prompting, has threatened to strip her of that duty on numerous occasions.
“Despite a lack of guidance, I maintained detailed documentation of expenditures for Jason, consistent with my background in accounting,” Estes said. “But I was stunned in 2008 when, despite the lack of detailed [Veterans Benefits Administration] instructions, I received a letter from the VA Regional Office in Baltimore which cited my ‘failure to submit timely accounting’ as ‘constituting a breach of fiduciary duty’ and threatened to remove me as a fiduciary.”
She ultimately met with an auditor and was told that her documentation was more than sufficient. Still, she received a similar letter the following year and another just this previous year.
“Given that that’s been my experience, imagine what this process might be like for a young spouse without any background in recordkeeping,” Estes said. “I do not understand an agency that is so quick to threaten, so irresponsible to questions and so much of a black hole.”
According to veterans’ advocates, this experience is not uncommon. Rick Weidman, executive director for policy and government affairs for the Vietnam Veterans of America, said the financial aspect of the situation is closely tied to the medical aspect.
“This is not a financial program. It’s an extension of a clinical program,” Weidman declared. “That’s the fundamental misunderstanding of this program. [In the past], many of these veterans would be in a long-term care facility. But they no longer exist at VA. Therefore, they’re living independently. So nowhere in this has anybody talked about whether this person is eating correctly, is their shelter warm, do they have warm clothes, do they have an air conditioner.”
What is also missing from the conversation, Weidman said, is any discussion about how veterans can go back to independently handling their own finances. While some veterans might always need fiduciaries because of irreversible conditions such as dementia, some can become healthy again.
“This is a drastic step to take — to infantilize a veteran,” Weidman said. It should be rare. And if you have to take that drastic step, what is being done to help that person get better and get out of the fiduciary program and return to full autonomy? Nobody talks about that. There is no clear procedure for getting out of the program, once you’re in.”
As of April 2011, veterans now have an outlet if they want to contest VA’s decision to enroll them in the fiduciary program. That month, the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims issued an opinion in which it concluded that a beneficiary may appeal VA’s appointment of a fiduciary to the Board of Veterans’ Appeals. While this is a move that pleases many veterans’ advocates, it concerns VA.
According to McLechanen’s testimony, the decision “may significantly impact VA’s fiduciary program workload, which conducts more than 30,000 initial fiduciary appointments annually.”