ST. PETERSBURG — Edna Carver, the 98-year-old widow of an Army veteran, needs help handling her finances from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Her accountant isn't sure she will live long enough to get it.
The VA's regional benefits office, handling cases throughout Florida, has a backlog of 800 veterans or their surviving spouses awaiting VA interviews before financial guardians can be appointed.
That's according to Rep. Rich Nugent, the Brooksville Republican whose office has looked into Carver's case. Nugent last week asked VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to "cut down this unacceptable backlog of cases."
On Tuesday, the VA declined to address specifically those numbers or Carver's case. But the agency said it is reassessing staffing levels around the nation to avoid delays appointing financial guardians.
Carver, who lives in a Brooksville assisted-living facility, has waited almost a year, said her accountant, Greg Myers. He is seeking an appointment as Carver's fiduciary, or financial guardian.
"She's 98," Myers said. "If you're 98, you don't know if you've got a year to wait. It's very frustrating and causes her anxiety."
Guardians awaiting approval can still manage a ward's finances, he said, but the VA can freeze some funds owed to a veteran or spouse until the guardianship is approved.
Nugent said he believes the St. Petersburg office handling such cases is understaffed, noting 18 field examiners in Florida conduct interviews with wards and their proposed guardians.
Of those, he said just three work in west-central Florida.
"I don't have a problem with the VA making sure the dollars are going to the right person and making sure the (guardian) is going to be responsible," Nugent said. "But it appears the VA doesn't have enough resources."
Officials at VA headquarters in Washington said they are assessing "staffing distribution" to better match guardianship caseloads around the nation.
In a statement, the agency said it was already "restructuring" fiduciary operations from 56 regional offices to six "hubs" that will speed up the process.
A spokeswoman for the VA in St. Petersburg declined to comment.
So some questions remain unanswered, including the reasons for the backlog and how it compares to other regional VA offices.
The VA says its fiduciary program protects the most-vulnerable veterans — those with a mental or physical disability making them or their surviving spouses incapable of handling their own finances.
Often, a family member is appointed.
If a family member can't be found or does not qualify — guardians cannot have a criminal history — the agency can appoint a professional, often an accountant or lawyer.
The guardian handles all finances, whether it's income from the VA, Social Security or stocks and bonds.
In Florida, professional guardians can be paid up to 5 percent of the ward's total income. Family members are not paid.
The fiduciary program has come under attack in recent years after the General Accounting Office and the VA Inspector General reported insufficient staffing, training and resources in the program.
Myers, the accountant helping Carver, said Carver is paid a monthly VA benefit based on her husband's military service. He died in 2002.
Hours after the St. Petersburg Times asked the VA about Carver, Myers said he got a call from the agency saying her case would be handled expeditiously to get the guardianship approved.
"This problem is going to get worse as our veterans get older and more come back" from Iraq and Afghanistan, Myers said. "It's going to mushroom into a bigger problem."
William R. Levesque can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3432.