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Too few staffers, poor technology and inadequate tracking of results are hampering a Veterans Affairs Department program that is critical for disabled vets, according to government officials and veterans advocacy groups.
Still, witnesses at a recent congressional hearing said the Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment program is an important tool to help some of the vets in the greatest need.
“Despite some of the management and oversight challenges discussed in our testimony and the [Government Accountability Office] report, we continue to believe that VocRehab is a vital and transformative benefit, essential and empowering,” said Paul Varela, assistant national legislative director for Disabled American Veterans.
“It has, and should continue to, make a difference in the lives of thousands of veterans every year.”
The program provides help and guidance to vets with service-connected disabilities, whether the best fit is returning to a previous job, finding a new job, going into business for themselves, seeking additional training to improve employment prospects or — for those with severe injuries who are unable to work — finding the community support that will allow them to still live independent lives.
A recent GAO review looked at the long-term outcomes for about 17,000 participants in the VRE program. Of those, about half found work, one-third left the program and most of the rest were still in the program 10 years later. GAO recommended that VA revise its staffing distribution, better track participants’ progress and make other changes.
Jack Kammerer, the program’s director, told the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee’s economic opportunity panel that VA was addressing the recommendations.
“The VRE service will continue to assess and improve vocational rehabilitation services to service members and veterans who have incurred a service-connected disability,” Kammerer said.
But Rep. Bill Flores, R-Texas, said VA has neglected the program. “I believe that most of these issues stem from a lack of attention and resources that are provided to the VRE service by senior VA leaders, which has been VA’s practice through many administrations, regardless of party,” Flores said.
DAV’s Varela said the number of veteran participants, as compared to the number of counselors, is “too high and disproportionate.”
The staff on hand also must sometimes work with inconsistent or outdated technology, according to Flores.
“My concerns about VRE’s IT system continue to be validated when I hear stories about ... offices not having Internet connectivity for months at a time or offices [that] have to rely on old, outdated fax machines and paper more than computers,” he said.
Meanwhile, Heather Ansley, vice president of veterans policy for the group VetsFirst, called for better guidance from the program on rules and protections set out by the Americans with Disabilities Act. Service-injured vets often don’t know their rights and their employers’ responsibilities, she said.
“Even if they know about the Americans with Disabilities Act, or the ADA, many disabled veterans are unsure about disclosing a disability to an employer, in fear of job-related discrimination due to a disability,” Ansley said.