Our review of the California Department of Veterans Affairs' (department) efforts to address the needs of California's veterans revealed the following:
California is home to more than 2 million veterans, representing 9 percent of the total U.S. veteran population. The mission of the California Department of Veterans Affairs (department) is to serve these veterans and their families by providing rehabilitative, residential, and medical care services to the State's aged or disabled veterans; providing veterans with direct low-cost loans to acquire farms and homes; and providing veterans and their families with aid and assistance in presenting their claims for federal, state, and local veterans' benefits. The department organizes its efforts to serve veterans into three divisions: the Veterans Homes division, the CalVet Home Loan program (CalVet program), and the Veterans Services division (Veterans Services). Veterans Services administers all programs and activities not directly related to the department's veterans homes or its CalVet program.
Despite its accomplishments in running the veterans homes and helping more than 417,000 veterans to purchase farms and homes through the CalVet program, the department offers only minimal direct assistance to address other issues veterans face, such as homelessness and mental illness. Rather, the department relies on other entities, such as the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (federal VA), local County Veterans Service Officer programs (CVSOs) representing 56 counties statewide, and nonprofit organizations to provide such services.
According to department officials, Veterans Services is responsible for collaborating with the different agencies that provide services to veterans. However, it receives minimal funding for its operations—approximately 2 percent of the department's total budget—most of which is allocated to support a portion of the CVSOs' operations, as required by the State's budget act. With its remaining funding, Veterans Services does not administer formal programs that provide direct services to homeless veterans or those with mental health needs, but instead allocates limited funding for local activities that, in part, aim to increase veterans' awareness of benefits available for those with such needs. For instance, it provided $41,000 in fiscal year 2008-09 to support Stand-Downs, one- to three-day events that provide services such as food, shelter, and clothing to homeless veterans. The department also provided $270,000 of its Proposition 63 (Mental Health Services Act) funding to five of the CVSOs in fiscal year 2008-09 for the purpose of providing mental health information to veterans and referring them for services. However, the department does not have adequate assurance that the funds are being expended for this purpose, because it lacks formal agreements with the CVSOs that identify the allowable uses of the funds.
The department has only recently shifted its attention from focusing primarily on the veterans homes, deciding that Veterans Services should take a more active role in increasing awareness among veterans about available services and benefits. To increase such awareness, Veterans Services is implementing various activities to further its outreach efforts, such as gathering veterans' contact information, updating its outreach materials, and better coordinating with organizations that provide services to veterans, although many of these efforts only began in 2008. The delay in undertaking these activities has likely reduced the number of veterans that apply for and receive benefits. Veterans Services is also in the process of developing collaborative relationships with other state entities that serve veterans, but many of these efforts are in the preliminary stages of development and lack formal agreements, thus limiting Veterans Services' ability to hold the entities accountable for delivering agreed-upon services.
With its new focus, the department has made increasing veterans' participation in federal disability compensation and pension benefits (C&P benefits) Veterans Services' primary goal. However, Veterans Services' ability to meet this goal is hampered by various barriers related to veterans' participation in C&P benefits, including that veterans may not be aware that they are entitled to them. For veterans who are aware of and apply for C&P benefits, filing a claim is a complicated process. For instance, the application consists of numerous pages and requires veterans to submit various documents, which, according to the deputy secretary of Veterans Services, can range from tens to hundreds of additional pages. Also, according to stakeholders, the complexity of the application has contributed to a delay in the federal VA's processing of veterans' claims for these benefits, in part because it takes longer for the federal VA to process incomplete claims.
To assist veterans in navigating the complicated claims process, both Veterans Services and the CVSOs help veterans and their families pursue and receive the benefits and services to which they are entitled, including C&P benefits. According to department officials, the CVSOs are an integral component of the department's efforts to interact with veterans and their families. However, Veterans Services' limited coordination with the CVSOs, due in part to the fact that the CVSOs are under the direct control of their respective county's board of supervisors, may hinder its ability to increase the number of veterans receiving C&P benefits. For instance, none of the officers of the CVSOs that we interviewed specifically shared Veterans Services' goal of increasing veterans' participation in C&P benefits. Further, although it has the authority to do so, the department does not require the CVSOs to provide Veterans Services with information about the number of claims filed for C&P benefits or a description of their outreach activities. Without this information, Veterans Services is limited in its ability to identify potential gaps in service and areas where it could better coordinate with the CVSOs.
Additionally, Veterans Services may be able to better target its activities to cooperatively assist those CVSOs with the greatest potential for improving participation in C&P benefits. For instance, in 2009, the deputy secretary of Veterans Services sponsored a project to create the Statewide Administration Information Management system (SAIM system), which may allow Veterans Services to obtain more veterans' contact information and to assess the quality and quantity of veterans' claims filed by CVSOs. Although these efforts are still in the early stages, to the extent that Veterans Services is successful in implementing this system, it may be able to target its outreach and coordination efforts to work with the CVSOs in counties with the greatest potential to increase veteran participation in C&P benefits. Department officials also indicated that the SAIM system would enable it to audit CVSO workload reports and verify the appropriateness of college fee waivers, two functions it is not currently performing as required by state law.
The continuing need to effectively coordinate with the CVSOs highlights the importance of effective planning. However, we found that the department's strategic planning process needs improvement. For instance, according to the department's secretary for administration, the department did not formally assess veterans' needs and concerns as part of its strategic planning process. Further, contrary to the California Department of Finance's guidelines for agencies developing strategic plans, the department has not formally involved the CVSOs in its strategic planning process. In fact, half of the officers of the CVSOs we interviewed were unaware that the department had a strategic plan. Without establishing a formal process to identify the key needs of veterans and involve key stakeholders in its strategic planning process, the department lacks assurance that it is effectively identifying, prioritizing, and serving these needs.
In addition, the department's strategic plan covering fiscal years 2007-08 through 2011-12 is incomplete. For example, its strategic plan does not specify the activities it will undertake to address the needs and concerns that it has identified for the veteran community. Further, although the strategic plan includes five department goals covering multiple objectives that the plan states relate to the successful delivery of programs and services to California's veterans and their families, these goals and objectives make no mention of major challenges facing the veteran community, such as homelessness and the needs of newer veterans. Also, the department has not followed key monitoring procedures suggested by the strategic plan, such as conducting quarterly progress assessments and publishing annual reports on performance measures, thus limiting its ability to effectively measure its progress toward meeting its goals and objectives.
The department concurs with several of the inadequacies we identified in its plan and, during the course of our review, posted a new, high-level plan to its Web site. Department officials stated that the department is still working to develop the specific measurable objectives for the plan, which it anticipates completing in early November 2009. In its continuing efforts to improve its strategic planning process, the department asserted that it plans to address our recommendations as it updates its plan in 2010.
Finally, the number of veterans participating in the CalVet program has decreased by 14 percent since June 2006, with 12,500 veterans participating in the program as of March 31, 2009. The Joint Legislative Audit Committee asked us to determine whether the CalVet program specifically benefits homeless veterans or veterans in need of multifamily or transitional housing. However, we determined that the program is generally not designed for these purposes and that state law would need to be changed or clarified for the department to address such needs. For instance, state law makes it impractical for the CalVet program to issue loans for multifamily housing, such as duplexes, triplexes, and fourplexes, because it generally does not allow veterans to rent out the unoccupied units. Further, state law provides little opportunity for the program to serve homeless veterans or veterans in need of transitional housing. For instance, although the law allows the CalVet program to lease its repossessed properties to private or nonprofit organizations for the purpose of serving these veterans, doing so is impractical. In particular, the cost of administering leases of its repossessed properties would likely be transferred to veterans, increasing the cost of obtaining farm and home loans. Additionally, the homes in the CalVet program's portfolio are designed for one family, which limits their usefulness for serving homeless veterans or veterans in need of transitional housing.
To ensure that Mental Health Services Act funding is used for appropriate purposes, the department should, before awarding additional funds, enter into formal agreements with the respective CVSOs specifying the allowable uses of these funds.
To expand its ability to inform veterans about the benefits and services available to them, the department should do the following:
To increase its coordination efforts with other entities that serve veterans, the department should do the following:
To better ensure that it meets its goal of increasing the number of veterans applying for C&P benefits, the department should ensure that Veterans Services formally communicates this goal to the CVSOs and coordinates with them to reach some common goals related to serving veterans. Further, to ensure that it identifies where and how best to focus its outreach and coordination efforts to increase veterans' participation in C&P benefits, Veterans Services should do the following:
To improve its strategic planning process, the department should do the following:
If the Legislature believes that the department should play a larger role in funding multifamily housing for veterans, providing transitional housing to veterans, or addressing the housing needs of homeless veterans through the CalVet program, it should modify or clarify state law to authorize the department to provide such services.
The department agreed with our recommendations and indicated that it is moving forward to implement them.