Family caregivers seeking help from the Department of Veterans Affairs encountered extended wait times and spotty aid from the agency, according to a new report from the VA’s Office of Inspector General.
The OIG investigation found that 65 percent of the more than 1,800 applicants between January and September 2017 were forced to wait longer than the required 45-day timeframe to be approved for the program. Fifty-five percent of the applicants waited between three and six months for approval, while 14 percent waited even longer, according to thereport released Thursday.
The problematic findings come as the VA ramps up resources to extend the program — which currently only applies to veterans who served after 9/11 — to veterans of all eras at a cost of $21.4 billion over the next five years.
The program’s costs have ballooned since its inception in 2012, reaching $396 million in stipends last year, as more veterans enroll.
Family members of veterans in the program are entitled to assistance such as monthly stipends and care coordination services.
The department has faced scrutiny as it deals with persistent vacancies within its ranks, a problem that will become more important as the program expands.
As part of its investigation, the OIG also determined that support coordinators failed to consistently monitor the health of half of the 1,600 veterans it discharged from the program during that time. Inadequate staffing levels in the Veterans Health Administration contributed to the problems, the government watchdog concluded, as did a lack of administrative procedures.
“VHA failed to effectively run the Family Caregiver Program because it did not establish governance that promoted accountability for program management,” the OIG wrote.
The VA said it is establishing procedures and guidelines to address the issues.
The lack of oversight also cost the program. The investigation found that 4 percent of veterans were determined to be ineligible after they had already been accepted, resulting in $4.8 million in inappropriate payments to their caregivers.
The report comes after stories of inappropriate terminations last year prompted the VA to briefly suspend discharges from the program.
“The VA has one year before our bipartisan VA MISSION Act expands the Caregiver Support Program to veterans of all eras,” Senate Veterans Affairs ranking member Jon Tester, D-Mont., said in a statement. “The VA knows what it must do before then: fix it.”