Weekly Columns

Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) whistleblowers recently exposed a nationwide problem to a Minneapolis-based reporter. These whistleblowers showed documentation from 2014 that detailed how the VA was wrongly charging disabled veterans home loan funding fees. The information provided to the reporter detailed a proposed solution to fix the problem, however, it was not implemented and veterans continued to pay a fee they were intended to be explicitly exempt from. This disclosure highlights the importance of men and women who expose wrongdoing within the federal government and calls attention to actions Congress can take to prevent such misconduct from happening in the future. 

In June, the VA Office of Inspector General (OIG) released a report that confirmed the details provided by the whistleblowers in the story regarding home loan funding fees. Congress exempts veterans who receive VA disability compensation from paying a funding fee to defray the cost of administering a VA home loan. Despite the exemption, the VA charged more than 70,000 disabled veterans over $286 million between 2012 and 2017. The OIG investigation discovered the Veterans Benefits Administration has known since 2014 that thousands of veterans may have been improperly charged these funding fees. The VA has yet to repay $189 million to more than 53,000 veterans. 

Now Congress is taking action to ensure the veterans incorrectly charged are reimbursed and prevent other veterans from being wrongly charged this fee. In early July, Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT), the ranking member of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, and I introduced legislation to hold the VA accountable and end its practice of unlawfully charging a funding fee to disabled veterans. Our bill requires the VA to implement a process to reimburse veterans who weren’t required to pay in the first place and shield veterans from unfair penalties in the future. It also requires the VA to develop an automated process for generating a refund and report annually to Congress on the number of funding fee refunds it issues. 

While media reports indicate payments to disabled veterans who were wrongly charged this fee will be processed by the end of September and veterans will receive notice in the mail of their forthcoming reimbursements, it is the responsibility of Congress to hold the VA accountable. 

I am grateful for the whistleblowers who spoke up about this negligence. Their brave efforts to call attention to fraud, waste and abuse was recently recognized by the Senate in a unanimously-passed resolution marking July 30 as National Whistleblower Protection Day. As a member of the Senate Whistleblower Protection Caucus, I am committed to promoting a culture that supports the brave individuals who are willing to speak out against wrongdoing and prevent retaliation against those who shine a light on misconduct. 

Improving accountability, safeguarding taxpayer dollars and making our government better are objectives we should all aim to achieve. Whistleblowers help us do this, just as they did in the case of our veterans who were penalized despite the intent of Congress. We must recognize that oversight and accountability empower those in position to raise concerns and expose misconduct to do so free from fear of retribution or retaliation.