The US Department of Veterans Affairs (V.A.) lost nearly $2.4 million on iPhone and iPad data plans that were supposed to help homeless veterans connect to telehealth services. Ultimately, 85% of loaner iPhones were left unused and stored for a year after purchase, according to a new inspector general report.
The department lost nearly $2.4 million on data plans for iPhones and iPads that sat in storage.
Under the CARES Act (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security), the VA received $14.4 billion to use for health services for homeless veterans and those at risk of becoming homeless. Some of that money went to the department's Office of Connected Care, which has loaned communication devices to veterans since 2014 so they can access telehealth services.
Connected Care launched a new program in summer 2020 that loans out iPhones and iPads, equipped with 12-month prepaid data plans, to veterans. Officials spent $63 million on 80,930 iPads and $8.1 million on 10,000 iPhones in fiscal 2020 and the first two quarters of fiscal 2021.
"Connected Care procedures led to excessive waste of data plans while iPads and iPhones remained in storage," according to the report. As of July 2021, a year after their initial purchase, "8,544 iPhones (85%) remained in storage." In addition to wasted money buying unused phones, the VA also wasted money on unused data plans. Because the contractors activated the data plans before sending them to VA and not at the time of delivery to veterans, the agency lost about $1.8 million in data for iPhones and $571,000 in data for iPads while the devices were being stored.
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“This occurred because Connected Care officials were unable to identify the number needed for the targeted veteran population due to uncertainties associated with COVID-19 and a lack of data on the number needed for a new initiative,” the report concluded. Ultimately, demand for iPhones "was much weaker than expected," but the VA didn't anticipate this in advance of its purchases and didn't take enough corrective action along the way. Surplus devices ended up being moved to a separate office within the department for distribution to homeless veterans, but not before losing the VA millions of dollars simply by sitting on the shelves.
The VA has been repeatedly criticized for financial mismanagement and misdirected spending.
In 2019, the United States Office of Special Advocates reported that the department spent $223 million on "unnecessary transportation" for veterans, without "reimbursing some community health care providers, resulting in veterans missing out on care and were referred to collection agencies". In 2015, The Washington Post found that VA had “spent at least $6 billion a year in violation of federal contract rules to pay for health care and supplies, wasting taxpayer dollars and putting veterans at risk.
Despite major concerns about the department's ability to manage money responsibly, the VA is requesting $301.4 billion for its fiscal year 2023 budget, a 13.3% increase from 2022. The department may have agreed the inspector general's recommendations to avoid wasting more devices and excessive data plans, but he's determined to gobble up more funds nonetheless.