Managing one's money was tough enough before the financial crisis. But that task requires even greater care today, and no one deserves the nation's help more than veterans and their surviving spouses. That's why the Department of Veterans Affairs needs to substantially ramp up its capacity to appoint financial guardians for qualified military families.
Times staff writer William R. Levesque reported this week that the VA's regional benefits office, which handles these cases across Florida, had about 800 veterans and surviving spouses waiting to be interviewed for a financial guardian. That number, provided by Brooksville Republican Rep. Rich Nugent, who has looked into the matter, includes the case of Edna Carver, a 98-year-old widow of an Army veteran who has waited almost a year to have a guardian appointed.
VA guardians handle all finances, whether it's income from service benefits, Social Security or stocks and bonds. Often the appointee is a family member. The agency may also appoint a professional, such as an accountant or attorney.
Nugent said he believes the local VA office is understaffed, noting that 18 field examiners in Florida conduct interviews with wards and potential guardians. Of that number, he said, only three cover west-central Florida. A spokeswoman for the VA in St. Petersburg declined to comment. But officials in Washington said they are reviewing staffing levels to better match case loads across the nation. The agency also said it was restructuring its operation to speed up the process.
If the VA lacks the resources to carry out its job, it needs to press its case with Congress. But this backlog seems to stem from the agency's inert culture as much as it does from any lack of money. While the VA refused to discuss Carver's case, her accountant said the agency jumped to help Carver, who lives in a Brooksville assisted living facility, shortly after the Times inquired about her case. But common sense if not decency should have made the 98-year-old's case a priority even before the negative public attention. The nation's financial obligation to these veterans means nothing if the bureaucracy cannot deliver on it.
VA Secretary Eric Shinseki should make it the agency's mission to reduce this backlog. Veterans suffering from mental or physical disabilities that make them incapable of handling their own finances are, by definition, prey to fraud and abuse. These veterans deserve — at the very least — what benefits and help they have coming to them.