I've been getting complaints for years about how slow the government is to appoint fiduciaries to manage veterans benefits for former service members or their spouses who are old or disabled.
It seemed as if the Department of Veterans Affairs had forgotten about them.
In some cases, it did.
The agency sheepishly announced a few weeks ago that about 14,000 fiduciary claims, some dating to 2000, didn't get processed because they weren't transferred properly within the agency's bureaucracy.
The delay could have cost veterans and their families thousands of dollars. If a veteran dies before a fiduciary is appointed, benefits that have been withheld pending the appointment aren't always paid. Uncle Sam profits from its tardiness.
"We sincerely apologize to these veterans and their survivors for this regrettable delay," VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson said in a statement March 24. "We are taking immediate action to complete these cases, initiate the fiduciary appointment process, and ensure that these errors do not happen again."
The VA's definition of "immediate action" probably differs from yours and mine. The VA said it could take as long as six months, or more. What else did you expect from an agency with a reputation for being as quick as a tortoise?
The VA appoints fiduciaries to manage government benefits for veterans who are deemed incompetent to handle their money. That most typically happens with disabled and aging veterans, or their widows and widowers, who apply for pension benefits to cover the cost of their care in a nursing home.
They must meet income requirements. Once they are approved, a process that can take months, their monthly benefits payments begin flowing. But they won't get any retroactive payments they are owed for the period between their application and approval if the VA believes a money manager is needed.
Staff will interview the veteran or eligible widow/widower to assess their competency. If it is determined that a fiduciary is required, appointing one can take many more months. During that time, the retroactive payments, which can be thousands of dollars, continue to be withheld.
The VA isn't comfortable releasing such large sums to someone considered to be unable to manage their money. So veterans must draw down their savings or rely on relatives to pay the nursing home bill until that money is released, though I've heard that some homes graciously will let the bill ride for at least a while for the benefits to come through.
A few years ago, I wrote about a Carbon County woman who went through that. It took her eight months to get appointed as fiduciary for her father, a World War II veteran, and likely would have taken longer if the Watchdog hadn't intervened.
She contacted me because she was concerned about her dad's growing personal-care-home bill, which she was counting on the retroactive benefits to cover. She was lucky to be appointed before her father died.
I also wrote about the sad case of another World War II veteran who died in a nursing home after waiting six months for a fiduciary to be appointed. The government kept the $9,000 he was owed in retroactive benefits.
His adult daughters were unable to claim it because when a veteran dies, accrued benefits are payable only to a spouse or dependent children, or for funeral or final medical bills.
The VA said it investigated delays in fiduciary appointments after receiving inquiries from people such as those I wrote about. The review found claims processing errors at regional offices and pension management centers across the country.
"In these cases, one or more of the procedures for controlling and transferring the workload were not followed, resulting in the fiduciary appointment delays," the VA said in its statement.
About 4 percent of fiduciary cases dating to 2000 were affected. The agency said it has modified its systems to better track fiduciary cases and plans to automate manual transfer processes that "are prone to error."
The number of veterans and their widows/widowers in the fiduciary program has grown by 50 percent since 2011 and continued growth is projected. Last year, the agency paid more than $3 billion to fiduciaries acting on behalf of more than 224,000 beneficiaries.
Last June, the VA inspector general issued a report critical of the fiduciary program. It said about 13,800 interviews to determine the need for a beneficiary were late in fiscal year 2013. Those interviews are supposed to occur within 45 days of a request for appointment of a fiduciary. One interview wasn't done for more than three years, the report said.
About 31,700 follow-up exams, which determine if a fiduciary still is necessary and is performing adequately, also were late, one by nearly six years, according to the report.
The inspector general said the agency fell behind on the exams because of inadequate oversight by management and failure to increase the number of examiners at a time when there was an increasing number of veterans in need of fiduciaries.
Auditors recommended the VA develop a plan to complete the exams on time; improve controls to identify exams that hadn't been scheduled; and use additional data to evaluate the performance of the fiduciary program.