- The Washington Times - Monday, April 20, 2015

The Department of Veterans Affairs said Monday it has not decided whether to discipline any employees after a government watchdog’s investigation found managers in the agency’s Philadelphia office cooked the books to make it appear veterans’ benefits claims were being handled promptly.

Despite widespread mismanagement highlighted by the VA’s Inspector General in a report last week, VA Undersecretary for Benefits Allison Hickey said the agency is conducting its own internal probe that won’t be finished until the end of June, and that more “training” may be needed for some employees.

“If we find any intent to do things that show a lack of integrity, then I’m not afraid to take appropriate accountability action,” Ms. Hickey told reporters in a conference call.

VA Secretary Robert A. McDonald, tapped by President Obama last year to clean up the beleaguered agency, is under fire from lawmakers and veterans groups for failing to punish enough people in the wake of last year’s scandal involving phony wait lists for patients at VA hospitals. The House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs held a hearing Monday night on chronic problems in the VA’s Philadelphia and Oakland regional offices.

Part of Ms. Hickey’s challenge in meting out punishment in Philadelphia is that managers there who falsified dates on veterans’ benefits claims were following orders approved by her.

The VA issued a memo in May 2013, known as “Fast Letter 13-10,” that instructed all regional offices on a new policy for handling older claims. The three-page memo advised: “Use the date a previously unadjudicated claim is discovered as the date of claim for system control purposes.”

Ms. Hickey said Monday that the memo was the result of “a very expensive, very coordinated process to design a new policy” that encouraged VA workers not to ignore older benefits’ claims.” She said the VA gave Congress and others ample warning that it would be changing the dates on some older claims.

“We briefed the Hill, the staffers on the Hill, [and] I even testified about it,” she said. “We briefed everybody and his brother.”

But she said managers in the Philadelphia office “misunderstood” the guidance. The IG report said managers in Philadelphia issued instructions on several occasions to place new dates on all benefits claims, which made it appear the office was acting more quickly on claims than it really was.

The IG said the subterfuge was “by design” as a result of the “flawed” memo from VA headquarters. It came as President Obama has been vowing to eliminate the backlog of veterans claims by the end of this year.

Ms. Hickey said she rescinded the “misapplied” policy in June 2014.

“We realized it was a hard story to tell, so people didn’t interpret that we were just changing dates,” Ms. Hickey said. “Because it could be interpreted in one place that way I rescinded that policy.”

The IG report said employees in Philadelphia told investigators that the falsifying of dates of claims “fluctuated and were based on the backlog of pending mail.”

“The practice of making older claims appear younger calls into question the reliability of [Veterans Benefits Administration] performance measures related to timeliness,” the IG said.

For example, The Washington Times obtained a VA memo dated May 8, 2014, proposing to change the date of a certain veteran’s benefits claim to the current date, although the office had received the claim seven months earlier, in October 2013. The memo said the agency was taking the action “per Fast Letter 13-10,” and it was approved by Leslie Medynec, assistant veterans service center manager, and Lucy Filipov, the assistant director.

An employee in the Philadelphia office who asked not to be named said it was a “scam” that allowed the VA to report to Congress, the media and taxpayers about progress in eliminating the backlog of claims.

“Imagine the cumulative effect if they are doing this nationwide on thousands of claims to conceal the extent of the backlog,” the employee said. “These are GS-15s [of the] senior executive service, who, caught red-handed, claim they’re unable to understand a very straightforward policy memo. They’re either incompetent and unfit for their jobs and cushy salaries and ‘performance’ bonuses or willfully deceiving the public, press and Congress.”

Ms. Hickey said the falsified dates had “a very small influence” on the agency’s overall performance at reducing its backlog of claims.

“At the end of the day, there were only 3 percent of these claims nationwide,” she said. “It wouldn’t have had an impact on skewing Philly’s backlog [of] reported numbers from a national perspective. It wouldn’t have moved the needle at all.”

She said the backlog has been reduced 74 percent in the past two years, and that no other VA office misunderstood the policy memo.

But the Inspector General said investigators are concerned that the VA’s “piecemeal approach” to discontinue the use of fast letter “had the potential to confuse claims process staff” at 56 other regional offices.

The IG said it reviewed similar allegations at the VA office in Little Rock, Arkansas, and confirmed that an employee at the VA office in Boston “misapplied” the guidance by adjusting dates of claims that were older than 14 days.

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