- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The Philadelphia VA regional office abruptly canceled plans Wednesday to pay bonuses for speeding up claims processing, after employees said they feared the bonuses would encourage them to make hasty decisions and deny deserving veterans their rightful benefits.

The bonus program, first reported by The Washington Times on Tuesday, offered $15,000 bonuses to teams that met processing targets and offered breakfast, lunch or snacks to teams that processed the most claims.

But Diana Rubens, director of the Veterans Affairs regional office in Philadelphia, wrote employees Wednesday that she had heard complaints from employees that they feared the incentives would force them to make bad decisions, so the program was “rescinded, effective immediately.”

“Given the return to mandatory [overtime] and, frankly, the concerns expressed by some and reported in the media that we would turn to bad behavior in an effort to pursue the incentive to the disservice of veterans, we will not pursue that incentive,” she wrote in her email message to her employees.

The VA has been under pressure to improve services after an internal investigation found that offices throughout the country were ensnared in bureaucratic red tape and kept secret waiting lists that prevented veterans from receiving timely care.

But some VA employees said the bonus program, rather than improving care, would push employees to speed through easy cases. Denials are easier than approvals, they said, so veterans could miss out on benefits they deserve.

The American Legion condemned the bonuses and said employees should be awarded for the quality, not quantity, of work.

“These incentives being offered in Philly are another example of VA leadership gone astray,” said Louis Celli, director of the American Legion Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation Division.

Ms. Rubens, the leader at the Philadelphia VA, said she wasn’t sure what else to do to speed up the process at the VA other than offer bonuses. In her email to employees, she said she was creating a suggestion box to solicit other ideas.

She said her office is supposed to process 36,600 claims this year and is already 3,000 short. The goal is to complete claims in 125 days, but the Philadelphia office has claims pending for 164 days. The wait time has worsened over the past two weeks, Ms. Rubens wrote in the email.

“How do we close that gap?” she wrote.

A VA representative said the regional office decided that requiring employees to work mandatory overtime was a better way of cutting the backlog than bonuses.

The VA initially said the bonus program would review the work for quality assurance.

The incentive program would allow the VA to “recognize team efforts that allow us to achieve exceptional performance while still maintaining quality standards,” the VA said in a statement.

It said the Philadelphia office had a 92.8 percent accuracy rate for claims processing last year.

The VA came under fire last year when a whistleblower said veterans were dying while waiting for care on secret lists in Phoenix. An investigation found a systemic problem at several facilities of employees keeping veterans off official waiting lists and making wait times appear shorter, which would allow them to collect bonuses.

The Philadelphia facility is under investigation for data manipulation, including hiding or shredding returned mail that could not be delivered and cherry-picking easy claims to process to misrepresent performance, according to testimony from Linda Halladay, the assistant inspector general for audits and evaluations who appeared before the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs in October.

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