WASHINGTON -- An Army program designed to help with day care expenses has instead pushed some troops toward bankruptcy and exposed the personal information of thousands more, according to a House oversight hearing Thursday.
The Army Fee Assistance program subsidizes child care for about 9,000 families forced to find private providers due to long waitlists on bases. But over the last nine months, it has amassed a backlog of about 26,000 unpaid invoices, unresolved subsidy actions and unanswered emails and voicemails, an auditor told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
Staff at the General Services Administration, which began managing the program a year ago, reacted to the growing backlog by deleting 4,000 of the unreturned voice messages and an unknown number of emails.
"This is an absolute boondoggle," said Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, the committee chairman.
The mismanagement has left soldiers who depend on the program for children up to 12 years old in the lurch, their requests for help unanswered by the GSA. Many are faced with paying for child care they cannot afford and waiting for reimbursement checks that do not come.
Kaela Hensley, an Army spouse and veterinary technician who lives in Maryland, testified that she and her husband recently made the fateful decision to put their daughter into off-base day care due to a yearlong wait on base and a belief that the Army would offset the cost.
"My husband and I never imagined the stress, the sleepless nights and tears we would have to endure because of this decision," Hensley told the House committee. They were left "pinching pennies to make ends meet, and feeling as a parent you have failed your child because you are unable to provide them with the basic essentials -- things like proper education, food, diapers and clothing."
Capt. Karmon Dyches, who is stationed at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Maryland, told lawmakers she was also a victim of the backlog and did not receive her subsidy payments from GSA. She said her family is afraid to move to a new location for her husband's job because they fear a new care provider might be less understanding about late payments.
Carol Fortine Ochoa, inspector general for GSA, said the backlog of claims and messages continued to grow through at least July.
"Families have reported severe financial hardships resulting from the processing delays," Ochoa said. "For example, Army families reported being forced to consider having a spouse quit a job, abandon a small business or quit school in order to leave one parent at home with their children.
"One family reported that their provider had sent their account to collections, another that they were facing bankruptcy," she said.
The IG found that the primary cause for the backlog was a lack of planning by GSA when it took over the program in November, promising to save the Army millions of dollars. It was quickly overwhelmed and realized the scope of the problem in February, according to House testimony.
The GSA also made other missteps while trying to fix the program. It hired 20 contractors to field calls and emails but did not properly vet them to handle personal information such as Social Security numbers, dates of birth and bank routing numbers.
One of the contractors had an active arrest warrant, according to the House committee.
Meanwhile, the backlog continued to balloon.
"Even with the contract staff added to the help desk in June, the backlog of unreturned calls grew to 7,300 by the end of July," Ochoa said.
Gerard Badorrek, chief financial officer of GSA, said he is responsible for the program and admitted weak planning led to the problems.
"Again, I want to apologize on behalf of the GSA. Army families deserve better," he said.
The Army is in the process of turning over the day care subsidy program to a new contractor, said Stephanie Hoehne, director of the Army's Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation Command.
She said the program should be stable by December and handed off to the new contractor by January. The backlog will still be handled by GSA because it is in such disarray that the Army could not find a contractor to deal with it, she said.
"I appreciate what our families are facing and I am personally committed to fixing the fee assistance program as soon as possible," Hoehne said.
Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., said he wanted the Army and GSA to work faster to eliminate the backlog.
"I'll send my staff down to do it if you can't do it," Mica said. "And you tell me you can't find a contractor who can pay the bills -- that's baloney."
The congressman ordered the GSA to provide a list of employees responsible for the failing program and whether they have recently received bonus payments for their work.
"I want them within 30 days or I'll ask for your resignation," Mica told Badorrek.