Fifty-four percent of the 57 VR&E offices nationwide told GAO that they didn't have enough counselors to meet demand, and 40 percent said they needed more employment coordinators. Thirty percent of the offices reported that counselors' skills only moderately met the needs of the veterans they served, while 30 percent said the same skills gap existed with respect to their employment coordinators.
Caseloads have become more complex as veterans' needs become more challenging, reported 90 percent of the VR&E offices. Eighty percent noted that the agency was only somewhat prepared to meet future demands, while 12 percent said the agency was not prepared to meet rising needs.
GAO reported that those estimates could actually understate the magnitude of the difficulties facing the program. A 2004 task force recommended that VA study how long it takes counselors to complete their major duties. The report is planned for 2009, and VA will publish its results in 2010.
Without those numbers it is difficult for VR&E to establish an appropriate ratio between caseloads and counselors and employment coordinators. The agency based its current target of 125 veterans to one counselor on a study of state vocational rehabilitation programs. But the VR&E workforce rehabilitation system, unlike those administered at the state level, is a more complicated five-step process. And VR&E is not even meeting its caseload target. GAO said the regional offices estimated that the average counselor handles cases for 136 veterans.
VR&E has increased headquarters staff in recent years, from 33 in fiscal 2004 to 55 in fiscal 2008. The number of regional workers has grown from 917 in fiscal 2004 to 1,101 in fiscal 2008. The program can also refer veterans to counselors who work with VR&E on a contract basis.
But GAO said it was unclear whether those staff increases were sufficient or whether existing workers were being used appropriately.
"Staff time may not be used efficiently, as many regional office staff we interviewed and surveyed said much of their time was spent on redundant paperwork and data entry requirements that reduced the amount of time they spent with veterans," said the report.
Former Veterans Affairs Secretary James Peake, who responded to the report in a Dec. 29 letter, said the agency would award a contract for a workforce survey by September 2009.
But he disagreed with GAO's assessment that counselors and employment coordinators might not have the requisite skills to assist returning veterans.
"The Veterans Benefits Administration has clearly defined critical skills and competencies needed by vocational rehabilitation counselor positions," Peake wrote. "Entry-level counselors are required to possess specific master's level educational credentials in the field of rehabilitation to be eligible for hire."