- The Washington Times - Monday, January 12, 2015

The Philadelphia VA announced a new incentive program earlier this month that rewards employees with cash and food for deciding cases quickly — a move that some employees say will encourage staff to rush claims and reject deserving applicants, once again leaving veterans struggling for benefits.

For some, the program is too similar to one at the Phoenix VA hospital last year that led to patients dying while waiting for care, even as employees manipulated wait time data to collect bonuses.

The new Philadelphia program is designed to push employees to clear a backlog in disability claims. The team that has processed the most claims at the end of every other week will receive a breakfast, luncheon or snack as a reward, according to an incentive fact sheet obtained by The Washington Times. Each team that hits its target of claims processed before Feb. 28 will receive a $15,000 bonus to be divided among team members.

Different teams have different goals, ranging from about 400 to almost 1,000 claims processed, the fact sheet said.

An employee at the Philadelphia VA facility said the program could lead to the same kind of cooked books that landed the Phoenix VA in trouble and ignited the nationwide scandal that cost the former VA secretary his job and led to vows that the department would put veterans’ needs ahead of the bureaucracy.

“This is more of the same failed and lethal methods,” said the employee, who said it often takes months to properly process a claim but almost no time to deny it. The incentive plan could encourage employees to deny claims in order to clear cases quickly.

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The VA, though, insisted it will review the work for quality assurance, and said the Philadelphia office had a 92.8 percent accuracy rate in 2014.

“The Philadelphia Veterans Affairs Regional Office has been challenged to meet an expected level of performance to fulfill our commitment to providing timely and accurate benefits decisions to our veterans and their survivors,” the VA said in a statement. “An incentive program has been implemented to recognize team efforts that allow us to achieve exceptional performance while still maintaining quality standards.”

But the Philadelphia employee feared those employees who took time to do a thorough review could be fired for not hitting processing targets.

Rep. Mike Coffman, Colorado Republican, said bonuses should be given for “going above and beyond the call of duty, not just pushing paperwork for the appearance of statistics.”

“When you reward people for pushing paperwork, as we saw in Phoenix, you incentivize bad behavior. The VA needs to do its job, and it shouldn’t take extra taxpayer funds to get them to do that,” Mr. Coffman said in a statement.

The Philadelphia VA is already under investigation for data manipulation, including hiding or shredding returned mail that could not be delivered and cherry-picking easy claims to process first 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.

A whistleblower alleged last year that at least 40 veterans died while waiting for care on a secret list at the Phoenix hospital. That report set off a nationwide investigation that found systemic problems across the country of data manipulation and putting bureaucracy ahead of veteran care.

In response, lawmakers passed a bill that allowed veterans to seek care at private providers if they lived too far from a clinic or waited too long for an appointment. The bill also capped VA bonuses through 2024 at $360 a million a year, though it did not go so far as a House-passed proposal that would have ended all VA bonuses through 2016.

A House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs staffer said it’s unclear why the VA would create a separate bonus system on top of the hundreds of millions awarded annually in employee bonuses.

“This incentive plan is a typical approach for VA: Award bonuses to people for merely doing their jobs, throw money at problems without addressing their root causes, and focus on arbitrary numbers rather than quality and standards,” the staffer said.

• Jacqueline Klimas can be reached at jklimas@washingtontimes.com.

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