The VA's rush to cut a huge backlog of claims from disabled veterans has forced it to cut corners elsewhere, and yet the department is still botching about one out of every 10 claims decisions, top officials and whistleblowers testified to Congress on Monday, signaling that the problems go far beyond the hospital wait times that have plagued it.
The very program the Obama administration started to years ago to cut the backlog has resulted in bad decisions that have forced many veterans into a lengthy appeals process, and created backlogs in other claims such as dependents' benefits, members of the House Veterans Affairs Committee concluded.
Whistleblowers, meanwhile, described important claims documents set to be shredded, a culture of ignorance and retaliation among managers, and pressure to quickly get through the backlog, which meant some veterans likely got shut out of benefits while others may have scammed the system. All the while, appeals have shot up.
"These are veterans. I mean, somebody would be asleep at the wheel not to realize these things were going up," said Ronald Robinson, a senior veterans service representative, former Army first sergeant, and one of three whistleblowers to testify.
In one dramatic moment, committee Chairman Jeff Miller, Florida Republican, posted a handwritten note one of his staffers had seen on a site visit to Philadelphia in which a top regional VA executive had written that committee investigators were to be ignored, and that singled out known whistleblowers.
"Without question — without question — we respect the oversight of this committee and your staffs. What occurred on that day is not acceptable," said a contrite Allison A. Hickey, VA undersecretary at the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA), who invited any whistleblowers to come straight to her with any issues they come across.
The revelations come even as the Veterans Affairs Department deals with the fallout from its secret wait lists and accusations of botched treatment for veterans seeking medical care. Taken together, they show a department grappling with its mission at a time when its caseload is skyrocketing after more than a decade of the war on terror.
As with the health care scandal, the VA has cooked the books on wait times for disability benefits, and some offices stand accused of shredding mail or leaving it to pile up in bins, potentially obstructing some valid claims, the VA's inspector general found.
The IG also said it's seen instances when the VA was making multiple payments to the same veteran because his or her records were duplicated in the system — yet managers, who were made aware of the problem, didn't consider it a priority to correct it.
"Improved financial stewardship is needed," Linda A. Halliday, the VA's assistant inspector general for audits and evaluations, said in testimony prepared for Monday's hearing.
Ms. Hickey, the undersecretary, said delays in veterans getting their payments "has never been acceptable" and said the department has been trying for four years to get a handle on the situation.
Under former Secretary Eric Shinseki, who resigned earlier this year amid the growing scandal over health care, the VA set a goal of eliminating the backlog of disability cases and of processing all claims within 125 days, at a 98 percent accuracy rate, by next year.
Ms. Hickey said they have succeeded in cutting the backlog and reducing the average processing time, and said they've managed to maintain quality in their decisions.
"We have increased our claim-based accuracy from 86 percent in 2011 to 90.3 percent today," she said in her prepared testimony.
But the rate varies dramatically among the VA's regional offices, with some showing accuracy rates of 96.8 percent while others fell below 80 percent, when measured by a claims-based method.
The VA has introduced a new issue-based accuracy rate, which scores somewhat higher — but auditors questioned that measure, saying the VA ignores commonly accepted statistical methods in making the calculations.
"VBA is producing imprecise estimates of accuracy that, while not completely reliable, are being used by program managers to guide improvement efforts," Daniel Bertoni, director of education, workforce and income security issues at the Government Accountability Office, testified. "VBA also missed an opportunity to win the public's trust when it introduced a new accuracy measure without full explanation of its meaning and limitations. At the same time, VBA is expending more resources than needed to produce its accuracy estimates — resources that could be better used to achieve more precise estimates or drill down on error trends to guide improvement efforts."
Meanwhile, the whistleblowers said their efforts to warn superiors of botched processing and other problems were ignored.
Kristen Ruell, a quality review specialist in the VA's Philadelphia Regional Office, said she's warned her bosses about shredding of mail, bad payments made to veterans and botched interpretations of federal law.
"Instead of solving the problems, I was — and continue to be — retaliated against by the VA," she said.
Ms. Ruell said her managers are "morally bankrupt" people who are more interested in manipulating data to win bonuses than they are in helping veterans and their survivors get the benefits they are entitled to.
The VA is facing a number of allegations of ignoring whistleblowers, and just last month was excoriated by the Office of Special Counsel for failing to take action on a number of complaints that appear to be substantiated.
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