U.S. Army families who were frustrated by late payments for child care -- which they relied on as part of their service -- will be getting back checks within 30 days, the General Services Administration ordered Thursday.
The agency also said it would also offer emergency loans to any of the 9,800 families who use the troubled U.S. Army Fee Assistance Program and who were facing financial hardships because of late child care payments.
The GSA's chief financial officer and an Army official also announced the agency will rehire a private contractor to help take over the U.S. Army Fee Assistance Program by December. That change, they hope, will alleviate a massive backlog of unpaid claims and unreturned phone calls to families.
The I-Team found thousands of late payments, bureaucracy and poor customer service inside the U.S. Army Fee Assistance Program, which has been operated by the General Services Administration since 2014.
The program was established to help Army parents who can’t find available child care on their military posts. Those parents, through the program, can find private child care in the community and receive subsidy payments from the GSA.
But the I-Team report found understaffing and poor planning have contributed to delayed payments and a large backlog of unreturned phone calls and emails to parents.
An internal agency audit, released to the I-Team, showed wide-ranging mistakes.
"As a result of the planning and process failures outlined in this report, Army families participating in the program experienced inadequate customer service and substantial processing delays," the audit read. "Customer phone calls went unanswered and voice messages were ignored and deleted.”
The backlog of unreturned calls was so severe, according to the audit, program managers chose to delete 4,000 unreturned voicemail messages from Army parents.
The number of unreturned messages and requests has spiked, increasing from about 11,000 in January to nearly 26,000 in July, the audit said.
At a Thursday hearing in front of the U.S. House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing, Congressional leaders hammered agency officials for the mistakes.
“It’s just totally and wholly unacceptable," committee chairman Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) said.
Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA) said, “We have an obligation to these children and to these families.”
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) said it was noteworthy that fixes weren’t made in some cases until after the July report by the News-4 I-Team.
“The situation was not rectified until it was brought to the attention of the public by the NBC 4 investigation," Norton said.
GSA chief financial officer Gerard Badorrrek apologized to families in front of the the House panel, “I want to apologize to families today, all of whom have suffered hardships.”
The apology may be cold comfort to some families who have struggled through the delays.
U.S. Army captain Karmon Dyches told the I-Team in July, “They have failed our family, they’ve failed everybody that I’ve talked to.” Dyches said child care subsidies for her daughter had been delayed up to three months.
Dyches said she and her husband have been forced to spend thousands of dollars out of pocket, while awaiting late payments from the federal government. Dyches said, "I’m pulling my hair out, everybody is really, really frustrated.”
Dyches was called to appear before the House committee Thursday. She told them, “We all have to make sacrifices (in military service), but wee shouldn’t have to sacrifice the health and safety of our children.”
The internal audit quotes several complaints filed by Army families with the GSA. The audit said, “An Army soldier expressed frustration about unanswered phone calls and emails sent to the help desk, stating, “It is to the point that my [spouse] and I are now filing for bankruptcy. I cannot stress how much we need assistance with day care. Right now we are paying $1,000 a month out of pocket.”
Kaela Hensley, whose husband is a US Army employee in Maryland, said her child care subsidies were delayed five months. Hensley said, “We were pinching penny to penny every single month.”