- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 22, 2015

In a voice choked with emotion, Rustyann Brown told lawmakers Wednesday how the Department of Veterans Affairs routinely turned its back on veterans and their families, even in death.

Mrs. Brown, a former employee in the VA’s Oakland office, was assigned one day in 2012 to a special team given the job of reviewing more than 13,000 veterans’ claims dating back to the mid-1990s that had never been addressed. As they sorted through the mounds of papers, she said, they often discovered that the veterans had long since died without receiving the requested benefits.

In those cases, Mrs. Brown testified, VA managers instructed employees to mark the files “NAN” — for “no action necessary.” But she said taking that step also prevented a veteran’s survivors from receiving benefits.

“If the widow ever came in to file a claim … there’s nothing there,” she told the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, her voice breaking. “There’s no information about her husband. On a daily basis, we were seeing piles of [claims] set aside. It was our obligation to contact that family. We didn’t do that. We should have.”

A VA official from Oakland assured lawmakers that the agency has since taken care of all the old claims, but Mrs. Brown called that “a lie.”

VA Assistant Inspector General Linda Halliday testified Wednesday that as recently as last month, her office discovered another 1,300 old documents in the Oakland office, including “claims that still require action.”

“In some of these cases, veterans’ benefits were affected,” she said.

The new tale of neglected veterans and their families emerged as VA whistleblowers and a government watchdog told the House committee Wednesday that the agency is still wracked with employee retaliation and widespread foul-ups in delivering veterans’ benefits, long after top VA officials claimed problems have been fixed.

Witnesses described mental abuse of VA workers and falsifying records to erase claims backlogs. One witness even told lawmakers about a VA manager in Philadelphia who allegedly compelled subordinates at a party to pay his wife $30 each to tell their fortunes.

Ms. Halliday, who issued a scathing report last week about problems in the Philadelphia office, revealed Wednesday that she has launched a new probe into “misuse of positions by two senior leaders” in Philadelphia — a reference to the fortune-telling incident.

Despite assurances from VA leaders that the problems are being addressed, a whistleblower said the agency can’t be reformed unless the managers responsible are fired.

“Without removing the officials making the bad decisions, this issue will continue to be a revolving door of taxpayer waste,” said Kristen Ruell, a quality review specialist at the Philadelphia VA office.

The hearing focused on problems with delivering veterans’ benefits and other services in Philadelphia and Oakland — two of the VA’s largest regional offices.
Rep. Ralph Abraham, Louisiana Republican, said the revelations made him “filled with anger.”

“How tragic is it in today’s VA system that the same veteran we trust our national security to and even our lives to, that same veteran can’t trust our VA system to take care of them?” Mr. Abraham said. “What I’m hearing today is a mismanagement of lives from our VA system. It goes to the very core of what this nation is supposed to be about.”

But Allison Hickey, VA undersecretary for benefits, said the agency’s problems are not “systemic.” Another VA official said many of the agency’s problems stem from a yearslong effort to convert paperwork for millions of veterans into digital files.

“We’re trying to be more veteran-centric,” said Danny Pummill, the VA’s principal deputy undersecretary for benefits. “A lot of this is way too much work with not enough people.”

Chairman Jeff Miller, Florida Republican, asked one witness from Philadelphia about reports that the wife of Gary Hodge, manager of the office’s pension management center, attended a dinner party with VA employees in June at which she “offered her services to attendees to share messages she received from their deceased loved ones.”

He said Mrs. Hodge is “a medium.”

The witness, Ms. Ruell, said she wasn’t invited to the dinner, but heard several employees talking about it later. She said the employees who paid “for Mr. Hodge’s wife to give them a fortune-telling experience” were his subordinates.
“They were pension center employees that were under Gary Hodge,” Ms. Ruell said. Mr. Hodge has since been transferred to the Washington office, where Ms. Hickey said she needs his “expertise.”

Lawmakers expressed incredulity.

Rep. Jackie Walorsky, Indiana Republican, said the VA is “a large bureaucracy that’s run amok.”

“This is the first time I’ve ever heard of charging money for mandatory parties of palm-reading,” Mrs. Walorsky said. “When the American people hear this, there’s going to be another [movement] from New York to California that stands up and says, ‘This has to stop. People have to be fired.’”

Mr. Miller also grilled Philadelphia VA Director Diana Rubens about the $288,000 relocation package the VA paid to transfer her last year from Washington. She received more than $80,000 in relocation expenses, while the agency also paid a federal contractor more than $200,000 to sell Ms. Rubens’ home in Alexandria, Virginia.

Mr. Miller questioned why Ms. Rubens needed such a large incentive to move to Philadelphia, considering that she has family nearby in Wilmington, Delaware.

“So you did not want to move unless you got a $300,000 relocation package to be close to your mother and your family?” Mr. Miller asked.

“No sir, that’s not the issue,” Ms. Rubens said, adding that she “thought it beneficial” to accept the package.

“I guarantee you I would move close to my mom without a $300,000 relocation package,” Mr. Miller retorted.

Diana Blender, a 73-year-old employee at the Philadelphia office, said co-workers harassed and intimidated her after she started reporting wrongdoing at the office. Ms. Ruell echoed her concerns that whistleblowers face continued reprisals.

Mr. Pummill said his boss, Ms. Hickey, has vowed to take “the harshest” disciplinary action necessary after another internal VA probe is completed in Philadelphia by the end of June.

Ms. Halliday, the assistant inspector general, said the Philadelphia office that serves more than 825,000 veterans and distributes more than $4 billion in benefits annually needs new leadership.

“The big issue in Philadelphia is the management,” she told the committee. “We have never seen such a dysfunctional and toxic environment.”

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