House Subcommittees Probe Mishandling of Veterans Disability Claims

“In the last few months, we have tracked a problem brought to our attention with misdating of claims information at the New York Regional Office,” said Chairman Hall. “This situation was a clear attempt by managers to fudge performance numbers. The incorrectly entered data made the regional office look like it took fewer days to process claims than in actuality – yet still beyond acceptable levels to me, or to most veterans. Although veterans were not directly harmed by this practice, since the effective date of a claim was logged correctly in a different system, perpetrators of this kind of dishonestly impact the entire veteran community’s ability to trust the institution charged with its welfare. This is shameful!”

After conducting site visits to several other regional offices, the VA Office of Inspector General (OIG) issued a report on February 27, 2009, entitled “Review of VA Regional Office Compensation and Pension Benefits Claim Receipt Dates,” which is available at this link: OIG Report. The OIG found that “the claim date inaccuracies were mostly unintentional errors” at the other regional offices. Assistant Inspector General for Auditing Belinda Finn stated that “the errors we reviewed did not cause any veterans or their beneficiaries to receive incorrect or delayed benefit payments.”

The Subcommittees also addressed the OIG mail room audit which found documents inappropriately placed in shredder bins – documents necessary to process claims as well as documents that should have been retuned to the veteran. Deputy Under Secretary for Benefits Michael Walcoff testified that VA took immediate actions in response to preliminary reports, which included a temporary cessation of shredding until it was able to relocate all shred bins and equipment to VBA management offices and inventory all claims-related mail or original supporting documents. Additionally, VA instituted new policies on shredding that require two signatures on papers to be destroyed. Walcoff said, “This effort identified 474 documents affecting benefit entitlement inappropriately placed in shred bins for disposal. These 474 documents and the 45 documents indentified by the OIG were found at 41 of our 57 regional offices and centers.” VBA also developed an 8-point plan of action to strengthen policies and procedures to safeguard veterans’ paper records. That plan is detailed here: VBA 8-Point Plan of Action

Assistant IG Finn testified that the extent of the inappropriate claim-related shredding cannot be determined and also noted that lack of controls at the various VBA regional offices (VAROs) contributed to the mishandling of claims. Finn further stated,

“VBA officials also said that some VAROs held ‘mail amnesty’ periods to encourage employees to turn in unprocessed mail and other documents without penalty or repercussions. During an amnesty period in July 2007 at VARO Detroit, VARO employees turned in almost 16,000 pieces of unprocessed mail including 700 claims and 2,700 medical records and/or pieces of medical information. The VARO determined that none of these claims or documents were in VBA information systems or associated claim files. VBA management told us of similar amnesties at other VAROs, such as an amnesty at VARO New York in December 2008 that recovered 717 documents from VARO employees.”

Chairman Mitchell expressed his strong reaction to this news. “Obviously we are going to have to get complete information from VA about these amnesties, but it is impossible not to be shocked by the numbers from Detroit,” said Chairman Mitchell. “Shredding documents, or burying them in the bottom drawer, are a breach of trust by VA. Whether that breach of trust comes as a consequence of inadequate training or negligent or deliberate behavior, Congress much not and will not tolerate it.” Chairman Hall indicated that staff for the Subcommittees would be following up on this information and Deputy Under Secretary Walcoff promised the VA’s full cooperation.

The Subcommittees also discussed survivors’ benefits for widows. Over the last twelve years, VA’s mistaken interpretation of the law resulted in approximately 50,000 surviving spouses losing millions of dollars in benefits or having the Department of the Treasury seek restitution from them for an overpayment. The VA has developed an action plan to correct this series of errors and produced a timeline for this action plan, which should be finalized by April 2009.

“The misdating, shredding, and glitches that the media recently reported are only the tip of the iceberg,” concluded Chairman Hall. “I have heard too many accounts from veterans and their survivors about missing, lost, or destroyed file, and VA sending them multiple requests for information and still not knowing the location of a file. A lot of VA employees touch a claim folder, but rarely is anyone held accountable or responsible when it is lost or destroyed. This is absolutely unacceptable. I have been on a track to modernize the VBA’s out of date claims processing system. I envision VA as an Agency that we as a nation are proud of in the way that it serves the welfare of our disabled veterans. When it comes to discharging those responsibilities, shameful acts are what should be archaic practices.”

“I understand the confusion and the anger in the veterans community after hearing that more than 16,000 documents turned up in ‘mail amnesty’ at a single regional office!” commented Bob Filner, Chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. “Today is a new day at VA, with a new President and new leadership. I am confident that Secretary Shinseki is committed to helping our veterans and will take immediate action to address the record-keeping problems raised today! This is where new approaches to leadership are crucial and accountability, along with proper oversight, is essential.”

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