The backlog of unanswered calls, emails and records requests has doubled inside a troubled day care program for U.S. Army parents.
A newly released internal audit details late payments, bureaucracy and poor customer service inside the U.S. Army Fee Assistance Program, which is operated by the U.S. General Services Administration. The audit was released six weeks after problems with the program were revealed in a News4 I-Team investigation.
The Army Fee Assistance Program was established to help Army parents who can’t find available day care on their military posts. Those parents, through the program, can find private day care in the community and receive subsidy payments from the General Services Administration.
But the internal audit, released Tuesday by the General Services Administration Inspector General’s Office, says understaffing and poor planning have contributed to delayed payments and a large backlog of unanswered phone calls and emails from parents. The audit said, “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. Customer phone calls went unanswered and voice messages were ignored and deleted.”
The backlog of unanswered calls was so severe, according to the audit, program managers chose to delete 4,000 unanswered voicemail messages from Army parents. The number of unanswered messages and requests has spiked, increasing from about 11,000 in January to nearly 26,000 in July, the audit said.
These complaints about backlogs were first revealed in a July investigation by the News4 I-Team. Karmon Dyches, a U.S. Army captain in Montgomery County, said, “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.”
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 U.S. Army employee in Maryland, said her child care subsidies were delayed five months. Hensley said, “We were pinching penny to penny every single month.”
A spokeswoman for the General Services Administration, in a statement to the I-Team, said the child care program is facing challenges. The U.S. Army recently asked the agency to expand the program, which the GSA has operated since 2003. The spokeswoman said, “The agency’s role in administering the program has expanded significantly within the past few months -- from processing applications for a few hundred families to almost 10,000, and from working with a few hundred childcare providers to more than 6,000.”
The agency has hired additional contractors to help reduce the backlog.
The General Services Administration, its internal auditors and families said the program is complex. In many cases, investigators said paperwork errors or omissions by Army families are contributing to backlogs and payment delays.
In its formal response to the newly released audit, a General Services Administration official said, “We are very concerned about the welfare of our military families, and share the IG’s concern that it is critically important for GSA to eliminate the backlog of family actions as quickly as possible and provide better service for families and childcare providers.”
The U.S. House Oversight and Government Reform Committee is scheduled to stage a public hearing Thursday into problems with the Army Fee Assistance Program. The committee, after watching the July investigation by the I-Team, requested Dyches and Hensley to appear.
U.S. Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) has also made formal requests for information about the length of the backlog from which the program is suffering. In a letter to program administrators, Sen. Casey has also requested the agency detail steps it’s taking to provide payments promised to Army families.
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) said he too has made formal inquiries to the General Services Administration and U.S. Army. In a statement, Sen. Kaine said, “I am concerned with the reports of Army families experiencing delays in receiving childcare services.”
"GSA takes its responsibility for the welfare of our military families seriously and understands it is critically important that GSA improve the operations of the Army Fee Assistance program," read a statement from the agency. "GSA apologizes to all of the Army families who have suffered frustrations and financial hardships. GSA is committed to getting this program on the right track and up to the level of service these families expect."