The VA Scandal Just Keeps Spreading

The Inspector General’s Office is investigating VA claims offices in Baltimore, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Oakland, Houston, and Little Rock, Ark.

Vietnam War veteran Bernie Klemanek of Louisa County, Virginia salutes with fellow veterans during a Veterans Day event at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the National Mall November 11, 2013 in Washington, DC.
National Journal
July 14, 2014, 6:56 p.m.

The scan­dal that erup­ted over al­leg­a­tions of data ma­nip­u­la­tion at the Vet­er­ans Af­fairs De­part­ment’s med­ic­al fa­cil­ity in Phoenix has now spread to the VA’s dis­ab­il­ity claims.

At a hear­ing Monday, House law­makers ques­tioned wheth­er the laser­like fo­cus by the Vet­er­ans Be­ne­fits Ad­min­is­tra­tion on end­ing the pen­sion and com­pens­a­tion claims in 2015 has caused the rest of its work­load to suf­fer.

“Whatever win you at­tempt to take cred­it for in 2015, you will not be cel­eb­rated,” said House Vet­er­ans Af­fairs’ Com­mit­tee Chair­man Jeff Miller dur­ing his open­ing state­ment at the hear­ing.

The VA ad­op­ted a goal un­der Eric Shin­seki — who stepped down as VA sec­ret­ary earli­er this year — to com­plete all dis­ab­il­ity com­pens­a­tion and pen­sion claims with­in 125 days at 98 per­cent ac­cur­acy.

But those claims make up a minor­ity of the Vet­er­ans Be­ne­fits Ad­min­is­tra­tion’s total pay and pen­sion work­load. While the num­ber of pen­sion and com­pens­a­tion claims has gone down, the moun­tain of oth­er claims — in­clud­ing ap­peals — is grow­ing.

“Some­body would have to be asleep at the wheel to not real­ize these things are go­ing on,” said Ron­ald Robin­son, who has worked at the VA in South Car­o­lina for more than a dec­ade.

Robin­son was one of three former or cur­rent de­part­ment em­ploy­ees from across the coun­try who told the House Vet­er­ans Af­fairs’ Com­mit­tee that they were re­tali­ated against for rais­ing con­cerns that pres­sure to meet dead­lines has led to in­stances of al­ter­ing a vet­er­an’s claim in­form­a­tion, in­clud­ing when the VA re­ceived the claim.

The VA has been em­broiled in scan­dal in re­cent months be­cause of al­leg­a­tions that staffers with­in the VA’s health care agency cooked the books on how long vet­er­ans waited be­fore they re­ceived a med­ic­al ap­point­ment.

The House Vet­er­ans Af­fairs Com­mit­tee has held a string of hear­ings on prob­lems with­in the VA, and Monday’s wit­nesses — like those be­fore them — poin­ted to a lack of lead­er­ship.

“The VA’s prob­lems are a res­ult of mor­ally bank­rupt man­agers,” said Kristen Ruell, who works in the Vet­er­ans Be­ne­fits Ad­min­is­tra­tion’s Phil­adelphia of­fice, adding that she be­lieves she has been re­tali­ated against for rais­ing con­cerns about how claims are handled in her of­fice.

Their testi­mony fol­lows a string of re­ports re­leased Monday from the VA’s Of­fice of In­spect­or Gen­er­al that sug­gest that VA work­ers were mak­ing er­rors in a rush to cut down the num­ber of claims.

One re­port from the in­spect­or gen­er­al re­vealed that a work­er in the VA’s Bal­timore re­gion­al of­fice in­ap­pro­pri­ately stored 8,000 doc­u­ments that could im­pact be­ne­fits pay­ments.

Mean­while, the VA on Monday said it has pro­cessed a mil­lion claims so far dur­ing fisc­al 2014, and it ex­pects to bring the total to 1.3 mil­lion claims by the end of Septem­ber. The de­part­ment has had “tre­mend­ous suc­cess” to­ward end­ing the back­log next year, said Al­lis­on Hickey, the un­der­sec­ret­ary for be­ne­fits, in a state­ment.

But Ruell said that “if you have a dif­fer­ent kind of claim, it might not be in­cluded in the defin­i­tion of the back­log.”

And Linda Hal­l­i­day, the as­sist­ant in­spect­or gen­er­al for audits and eval­u­ations, said in her pre­pared testi­mony that the VA has fo­cused on cut­ting the back­log to the det­ri­ment of its oth­er work­loads — some of which are grow­ing “at an alarm­ing rate.”

Hal­l­i­day said the VA also needs bet­ter fin­an­cial reg­u­la­tions. The VA’s In­spect­or Gen­er­al’s Of­fice found in an audit of claims where vet­er­ans were gran­ted 100 per­cent dis­ab­il­ity on a tem­por­ary basis that the VA could pay roughly $371 mil­lion in un­ne­ces­sary pay­ments over the next five years due to lack of fol­low-up eval­u­ations for those vet­er­ans.

Hal­l­i­day also told law­makers that the In­spect­or Gen­er­al’s Of­fice is look­ing in­to data-in­teg­rity is­sues with VA claims at its of­fices in Bal­timore, Phil­adelphia, Los Angeles, Oak­land, Hou­s­ton, and Little Rock, Ark.

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