- The Washington Times - Monday, December 7, 2015

The Department of Veterans Affairs’ travel reimbursement program improperly approved travel expenses amounting to $37,400 between three medical centers in 2014, a watchdog report released Monday found.

The Hudson Valley Health Care System in New York, the Hampton VA medical center in Virginia and the Lexington VA medical center in Kentucky all use a mileage reimbursement voucher program called the Beneficiary Travel Program, and were all found to have not been consistent in how they approved these vouchers, thereby overpaying for travel costs.

The VA inspector general’s office said the Hudson Valley center did not approve ineligible beneficiaries for travel costs, but they did make mistakes when processing about 38 percent of their vouchers that investigators reviewed. They approved the largest improper amount of the three medical centers, at $27,200 in 2014, the report said.

The Hampton VA medical center made errors in about 21 percent of the vouchers they reviewed and approved an estimated $9,700 in improper reimbursements.

The Lexington hospital made the fewest errors and paid out the least improperly, at a 7 percent error rate and about $500 in improper reimbursements.

The program allows the VA to reimburse eligible veterans for travel expenses pertaining to rehabilitation, counseling, medical care or other such services.

The inspector general’s office has identified problems with the Beneficiary Travel Program before, in a report released in 2013, where the IG found that VA staff were not properly processing the reimbursement vouchers. At the time, they had recommended that the hospital directors improve the reimbursement review process and set up criteria for mileage reimbursements and ensure that no money is improperly paid out.

Investigators also found that some VA staff who had worked on approving travel reimbursements did not have the required training, and that the program had no system for quality control, the report said.

The report said that while individual travel reimbursements for the three facilities reviewed averaged less than $26 per trip, if all facilities across the country had similar program failures, then “they have the potential to be significant.”

“Furthermore, the facilities will continue to make improper payments to beneficiaries that the medical facilities could use for other medical care or services,” the investigators concluded.

The IG’s office recommended that the VA add controls to the system, including auditing the process and giving staff the necessary training to handle travel vouchers.

The VA responded to the report, saying they concurred with the IG’s findings and would “encourage sites to establish a standard reimbursement.”

The agency has been criticized in recent weeks after an IG report revealed that two senior executives orchestrated sweetheart transfers to new posts, and in the process also took nearly $400,000 in relocation bonuses the IG’s office concluded they didn’t deserve, and the VA had not made any moves to recoup the money.

Last week, the VA announced the demotions were being put on hold after a paperwork mix-up did not allow the employees complete access to evidence pertaining to the demotion, and gave them an extended appeals process — a move that drew the ire of lawmakers and veteran service organizations.

The beleaguered agency has under intense scrutiny following an IG report released early last year saying that 40 patients at a Phoenix hospital died while languishing on a secret waiting list manipulated by employees to make wait times seem shorter than they were. The scandal led to former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki’s resignation and calls for reform from lawmakers in Congress.

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