The  Veterans Affairs Department needs more staff to handle its program that helps disabled veterans to purchase or modify homes to improve their independent living, according to advocates.

In many areas of the country, inadequate staffing contributes to delays in processing Specially Adapted Housing program grants and results in poor customer service to veterans, said Heather Ansley, associate general counsel for corporate and government relations for Paralyzed Veterans of America, testifying before the House Veterans' Affairs Committee's panel on economic opportunity.

Investments in staffing are needed, she said, because staff members are not able to handle the large work load, including the influx of veterans with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

"Veterans with ALS are critical users of the SAH grant program and the housing adaptation assistance it provides," she said. The system is not responsive enough to those with more rapidly changing disorders like ALS, she said. PVA recommends expediting the process for veterans who are terminally ill, including those with ALS, she said.

According to service officers with PVA, veterans are having trouble reaching their SAH agents. This is not only unfair to the veterans, but to the agents who are trying to serve them despite too many tasks and too few resources, Ansley said.

While it's understood that application reviews need to be complete, said Rep. Ryan Costello, R-Pa., "we must strive to improve the timeliness of service for all veterans."

VA is working to free up other staff to assist with the grants, said Mike Frueh, director of loan guaranty service for the VA's Veterans Benefits Administration.

Frueh said the VA looks at efficiency and effectiveness across the board, and that these staff members need to be located around the country, but staffing can be adjusted if there's a spike in need in one area. VA requires in-home interviews be conducted with veterans within 30 business days of eligibility determination, and the typical SAH process requires numerous communications and in-person meetings with the veteran.

VA implemented streamlined policies and procedures for the SAH grant process in February 2014, Frueh said. He noted that there has been an overall increase in the number of veterans eligible for the program, citing expansions in the program, the military drawdown and VA's reductions in the disability compensation claims processing time.

In fiscal 2015, VA approved more than 1,800 grants totaling $96 million, he said, an increase of about 44 percent over 2014, and an increase of 65 percent over 2013.

Karen Jowers covers military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times. She can be reached at 

Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.

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