- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The VA inspector general will make 35 recommendations on how to fix problems at the Philadelphia regional office, including unannounced checks of the mail room and refresher courses for supervisors on how to properly dispose of documents.

At the same time investigators are uncovering problems at the Philly office, VA officials are still dealing with fallout from the Phoenix wait time scandal last year and making changes to parts of the reform law after facing criticism from veterans and lawmakers.

The list of recommendations for Philadelphia, obtained by The Washington Times ahead of the report’s release, found 258 duplicate records and urged the facility director to take “immediate” action to stop any improper payments, suggesting some veterans could be receiving their disability twice because of an administrative error.

It also urged the VA undersecretary of benefits to develop a plan to recoup duplicate payments.

The investigation also found that 53 quality reviews had been altered by VA staff, and asked the facility director to review each of these to determine whether the benefits a veteran received were altered as a result.

The report makes recommendations to prevent improper disposal of records, mishandling of returned mail and fraudulent use of date stamps on documents.

Some of the recommendations also call for further investigation or administrative action against staff at the regional office.

A spokeswoman at the VA inspector general declined to comment until a full report had been released.

The full inspector general report is expected to be released soon, according to an email circulated in the Philadelphia VA regional office obtained by The Times.

“As a reminder, the OIG was here from June through August 2014, and … much of our operation has changed since then,” regional director Diana Rubens wrote in the email.

She also noted that some of the recommendations were specific to the regional office, while others dealt with actions that needed to be taken by the Veterans Benefits Administration.

Problems at the VA exploded about a year ago, when a whistleblower alleged that veterans were dying while waiting for care on secret lists at the Phoenix VA.

As a response, Congress approved the Choice Card program that lets veterans seek private care if they live more than 40 miles from a VA facility or have to wait more than 40 days for an appointment.

Veterans have complained that the department measures the 40 miles “as the crow flies” in a straight line from the veteran’s home to the nearest medical facility, meaning veterans sometimes must drive much farther to get there.

The department announced Tuesday that it would change the criteria to be 40 miles driving distance.

“We’ve determined that changing the distance calculation will help ensure more veterans have access to care when and where they want it,” VA Secretary Robert McDonald said in a statement. “VA looks forward to the ongoing support of our partners as we continue to make improvements to this new program.”

Veterans have also criticized the program because it applies to any VA facility, not necessarily one that offers the service the patient needs. That means a veteran may have to travel farther to get specific care, such as mental health services.

Sen. Jerry Moran, Kansas Republican, said that is too narrow an interpretation of the law and urged the VA to base the decision on whether a facility provides the services a veteran needs.

“While today’s announcement by the VA is good news for veterans across the country … unfortunately it is not enough,” Mr. Moran said. “Thousands of veterans will continue to struggle to access the care they were promised through the Choice Act because of the VA’s flawed implementation of the law.”

The VA does not believe it has the flexibility to change this part of the program, saying it would need a new law from Congress, a VA spokeswoman said.

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