Implementation of Temporary Residence Adaptation Grants
GAO-09-637R, Jun 15, 2009
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As of May 2009, approximately 34,000 service members had been wounded in action as part of Operation Enduring Freedom or Operation Iraqi Freedom. In response to concerns about the assistance that service members injured in combat receive when they transition back into civilian life, Congress has enacted several laws to improve the benefits available to veterans and service members, including the Veterans' Housing Opportunity and Benefits Improvement Act of 2006. This act authorized the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to expand its previously existing adaptive housing assistance grants to include eligible individuals temporarily living in a home owned by a family member, known as Temporary Residence Adaptation (TRA) grants. Section 101 of the Veterans' Housing Opportunity and Benefits Improvement Act of 2006 mandated us to submit to Congress an interim report by June 15, 2009, and a final report by June 15, 2011, on VA's implementation of TRA. This interim report describes the number and characteristics of TRA grants and grant recipients and provides information on VA's policies and processes for providing the grants.
Utilization of TRA grants has been limited--VA had processed nine TRA grants from the date of the program's creation on June 15, 2006, through February 28, 2009. The dollar amount of the nine TRA grants VA has processed ranged from $3,575 to $14,000, and five of the nine grants were for the maximum amount of $14,000. All nine grants were for SAH-TRA, meaning that all nine grantees suffered from one of the more serious service-connected disabilities described earlier in this report. The nine grantees ranged in age from 26 to 93. VA staff and representatives of veterans service organizations with whom we spoke suggested several factors that may explain why so few veterans and service members have used the TRA grant program. First, some said that the number of veterans and service members who are eligible for TRA--as distinct from adaptive housing assistance in general--could be very small. According to VA, each year approximately 1,800 individuals become newly eligible for adaptive housing assistance, including SAH, SHA, and TRA. However, in order to be eligible specifically for TRA, individuals must also live or plan to live temporarily with a family member who owns a home. Thus, the population of individuals whose circumstances qualify them for the TRA benefit may be small. Second, TRA may not be a suitable option for some who are eligible for it. Some VA and veterans service organization staff with whom we spoke emphasized the difficulty of the transition period that severely wounded individuals experience when they return from combat. Third, TRA counts against the maximum amount of adaptive housing assistance available to eligible individuals--$60,000 in the case of SAH and $12,000 in the case of SHA. VA administers TRA as part of its overall adaptive housing assistance program. The agency bases veterans' and service members' initial eligibility for adaptive housing assistance (including SAH, SHA, and TRA) on a disability rating. The Compensation and Pension Service within VA is responsible for determining these disability ratings and for notifying VA's Veterans Benefits Administration Loan Guaranty Service of those who qualify for assistance. In general, VA contacts an individual who is rated eligible and who has submitted an application for adaptive housing assistance within 30 days of receipt of the application or the rating information to schedule an initial interview. During these face-to-face interviews, SAH agents--field-based VA staff--explain the adaptive housing assistance benefit and assess the individual's circumstances and adaptive housing assistance needs. If the individual wants to pursue the adaptive housing benefit at the time of the initial interview, the SAH agent guides him or her through the application, construction, and other related processes. If the individual chooses to delay use of the benefit, SAH agents told us that they regularly follow up by letter and phone to remind the individual about availability of the benefit. After a veteran or service member submits an application for adaptive housing assistance and decides to take advantage of the benefit, he or she must make a number of decisions related to the project--including arranging for mortgage and construction financing, hiring architects, working with VA to review and approve adaptation plans, and soliciting bids from and selecting contractors--before VA approves the grant. The length of time from submission of an application to VA approval varies. Among the TRA grants we reviewed, it ranged from 77 days to 293 days. Grantees have the freedom to make design decisions related to their projects, provided that the projects meet VA's suitability and feasibility requirements.