Just as President Obama was hoping to put one Veterans Affairs scandal behind him, another is brewing in the agency’s Philadelphia office, where officials opened a formal probe Monday into accusations ranging from mismanagement to lost benefits claims.
The union local representing workers in the Philadelphia VA office alerted employees over the weekend that high-level VA officials were to begin an “administrative investigation board” (AIB) probe to follow up on findings of a six-month-long inspector general’s investigation of the office.
The internal probe will focus on Philadelphia’s veterans service center and its pension management center, said union local president Joe Malizia.
“VA is starting to act on some of the [inspector general’s] recommendations,” Mr. Malizia told unionized employees in an email alert. “The AIB will be interviewing both bargaining unit employees and management officials. Since this AIB is a formal agency function, as employees, you are obligated to cooperate / participate. Unfortunately, failure to do so could lead to disciplinary action.”
The VA’s acting inspector general, Richard J. Griffin, is expected to release his own findings on the Philadelphia VA office next month. But he told House lawmakers last week that problems are rampant in the Philadelphia regional office, one of the nation’s largest.
“If you had a checklist of possible problem areas in different locations in [VA] regional offices, you could have checked just about every one of them that came to our attention in Philly as far as misplaced mail [and] unprocessed claims,” Mr. Griffin said. “There were issues in the veterans’ service center. They’ve got an insurance center up there, they’ve got two call centers — we had issues in all of those locations. It’s a major project to get it back on track where it needs to be. As far as how it might compare to other facilities? It’s very bad.”
Mr. Griffin said one reason his probe took so long is that his investigators kept uncovering more problems in Philadelphia.
“It was a project that just kept growing,” he said. “Every time we went back, there were more issues put on our plate. There are a number of whistleblowers involved there. There are a number of accusations against management there. And that’s why it’s taking several months to try and get through it.”
The new eruption over the quality of veterans’ services comes just 10 days after Mr. Obama visited the Phoenix VA hospital, where the scandal over secret wait lists for veterans began a year ago. The president stopped at the Phoenix facility to proclaim that his administration under new VA Secretary Robert McDonald is making significant progress in improving services.
Also on Monday, the VA announced that Mr. Obama had appointed members to serve on his new “MyVA” advisory committee to advise the agency on serving veterans better.
The appointees include retired Army Gen. Josue “Joe” Robles Jr., who will serve as chairman; Syracuse University vice chancellor Michael Haynie, an Air Force veteran; former U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona; Dr. Delos “Toby” M. Cosgrove, CEO and president of the Cleveland Clinic; and Robert Wallace, executive director of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
“The collective wisdom of our committee members is invaluable, and each of them understands that VA must improve customer service and focus the department on the needs of our veterans,” Mr. McDonald said.
But the problems in the VA’s Philadelphia regional office are likely to undermine Mr. Obama’s claims that his administration is getting a handle on the sprawling agency’s troubles. The notice to Philadelphia VA’s unionized employees said the new probe will examine “issues related to processing cases under” an agency directive that allows VA workers to “adjust” dates of unprocessed claims to the dates they were discovered in claims folders rather than the dates they arrived at the office.
The agency said the rule was necessary to encourage staff to place the “discovered” claims into the system without penalizing a regional office for having old claims.
The probe is also expected to focus on the Philadelphia office’s handling of mail. Reports last summer indicated that there were thousands of pieces of unanswered veteran mail at a Philadelphia VA branch office, and that some mail was destroyed.
And the new IG report is coming on the heels of complaints by lawmakers that the Philadelphia office is stonewalling their requests for records about Bradley Stone, an Iraq War veteran who killed six former family members in suburban Philadelphia in December before taking his own life.
Stone, 35, a former Marine Corps reservist, had been rated as 100 percent disabled with post-traumatic stress disorder and had been seen by a VA psychiatrist, who cleared him of homicidal or suicidal thoughts just a week before he went on his murderous rampage.
The Washington Times reported that the Philadelphia VA had denied Stone’s claim for additional benefits shortly before the murders. Late last year, Rep. Patrick Meehan, Pennsylvania Republican, wrote to Philadelphia VA Director Diana Rubens seeking Stone’s records and inquiring whether her office had rejected Stone’s claim for additional benefits during a department-ordered “surge” to process a backlog of veterans’ claims more quickly.
But the Philadelphia VA office still hasn’t responded to Mr. Meehan’s requests, and House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Jeff Miller, Florida Republican, blasted the agency this month for stonewalling Congress on a variety of inquiries.
“VA recently raised undefined privacy concerns to refuse producing all records” pertaining to Stone, Mr. Miller said.