The Department of Veterans Affairs is hiring 10 additional case managers in Florida to eliminate a backlog in a program providing financial guardians for veterans.
VA Secretary Eric Shinseki said in a Jan. 12 letter to U.S. Rep. Richard Nugent, R-Brooksville, that about 1,100 Florida veterans await initial appointments necessary to appoint a guardian and the average wait time is 75 days.
Nugent had complained to Shinseki in December after hearing from constituents facing long delays in getting guardians appointed. Nugent said some of the veterans his office worked with had waited more than 100 days for an appointment.
When his staff intervenes, the appointments are promptly scheduled by the VA, Nugent said.
"But for the untold numbers of veterans and families who didn't think to call their member of Congress, the situation was totally unacceptable," Nugent said in a statement.
Shinseki said the VA hopes to drop the wait time for an appointment down to 45 days. He also noted the VA may transfer case managers around the state as needed to help with particularly heavy workloads.
The VA's Florida guardian program is based at its St. Petersburg office and employs 30 people, including 18 case managers.
The VA has been restructuring operations in its fiduciary program around the nation. Both the General Accounting Office and the VA's inspector general have criticized the program in recent years, noting insufficient staffing and training of VA workers.
Officials at the VA's St. Petersburg office did not respond Wednesday to requests for comment. So a number of questions remain, including when the VA expects to eliminate the current backlog.
The VA says its fiduciary program protects the most vulnerable veterans — those with a mental or physical disability making them incapable of handling their own finances.
Often, a family member is appointed.
But if a family member can't be found or does not qualify — guardians cannot have a criminal history — the agency can appoint a guardian approved by the VA.
Family members don't get paid, but VA-approved guardians take up to 5 percent of a veteran's income as compensation.
"We recognize the unique needs of these individuals, who are among the most vulnerable of those we are privileged to serve, and are committed to ensuring they receive timely, professional and compassionate assistance," Shinseki said in the letter.
Reach William R. Levesque at [email protected] or (813) 226-3432.