U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) officials’ claimed to have nearly resolved the VA disability claims backlog during a Congressional hearing this week. Those claims were widely disputed, not just by members of the U.S. House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs that held the hearing, but even by the VA’s own Inspector General.
Allison Hickey, the VA’s undersecretary for benefits, told Congress that at the insistence of officials from President Barack Obama on down, the benefits backlog has been whittled down to about 275,000 — a 55 percent decrease from the peak.
Hickey’s claims were met with disbelief by some. Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, told her flatly that he thinks the VA’s numbers are inaccurate.
“I don’t believe anybody at the table is telling the truth from the VA,” Miller said at a contentious hearing that lasted more than five hours Monday night. “I believe you are hiding numbers.”
Asked if she trusted numbers produced by VA, the agency’s assistant inspector general, Linda Halliday, said no.
“I don’t want to say I trust them,” Halliday said.
A July 15, 2014 Stars and Stripes article was even more critical (Travis J. Tritten, “House hears evidence VA cooked the books on claims backlog“):
Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the committee, said the VA manipulation of its backlog of veterans seeking disability and pension ratings by writing off thousands of unresolved cases is analogous to its health care facilities keeping secret patient wait lists to hide months-long waits. It “created the appearance of success just like cooking the books on scheduling times,” he said.
….Over 7,800 of the unresolved benefit claims disappeared from the backlog after the VA issued what it called a “provisional rating,” a preliminary decision based on incomplete or outdated medical information in a claims file. It is a classification that requires additional work by VA staff to become a final disability or pension rating and cannot be appealed by veterans, the IG found. ….VA then “lost control” of the provisional ratings cases, which were pushed further to the back burner, where they were ignored. Some veterans might never have received final rating decisions if not for the IG investigation, according to Halliday….
“When we find these individuals, you can rest assured I will respond quickly and take necessary actions,” Hickey said. Miller and other members of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee have said they are skeptical of such reassurances.
Rep. Dan Benishek, R-Mich., said repeated VA claims about the backlog are “baloney” designed to make the department look good while staff was actually hiding the true numbers. “They are all concerned about numbers and not veterans,” Benishek said. “It is absolutely unbelievable to me that this is going on and nobody seems responsible for it.”
“At this point, I can say ‘No, I do not trust those numbers,’” Halliday said. “They need to be looked at very carefully, so I don’t want to say I trust them.”
A July 15, 2014 Fox News story took a different tact (“VA is making disability payment errors in rush to cut backlog, watchdog says“), but also reported on serious problems identified at various VA claims processing facilities:
Inspectors surveying Philadelphia’s VA benefits center in June found mail bins brimming with claims and associated evidence dating to 2011 that had not been electronically scanned, she said.
Inspectors also found evidence that staffers at the Philadelphia regional office were manipulating dates to make old claims appear newer. The findings are similar to problems that have plagued VA health centers nationwide. Investigators have found long waits for appointments at VA hospitals and clinics, and falsified records to cover up the delays.
In Baltimore, investigators discovered that an employee had inappropriately stored thousands of documents, including some that contained Social Security data, in his office “for an extensive period of time.” About 8,000 documents, including 80 claims folders, unprocessed mail and Social Security information of dead or incarcerated veterans, were stored in the employee’s office, Halliday said.
Kristen Ruell, an employee at the VA’s Pension Management Center in Philadelphia, told the committee that mail routinely “sat in boxes untouched for years” at the pension office. Once, after becoming concerned that unopened mail was being shredded, Ruell opened the boxes and took photos. Instead of addressing the problem, she said, VA supervisors enacted a policy prohibiting taking photos.
“A lot of the mail that should not have been shredded was shredded,” she said.
A July 14, 2014 USA Today article (Gregg Zoroya, “Report cites VA struggles with benefits paid to veterans“) reported even more details of the Inspector General’s reports that stand in sharp contrast to Benefits Undersecretary Allison Hickey’s pollyannaish assertions that all is well with “her” efforts to reduce the claims backlog:
Other mistakes or sloppiness cited by Haliday include:
— The VA failed to follow up with veterans granted temporary 100% disability pending improvement of their physical health. Investigators estimate this has resulted in $85 million overpaid since 2012 and could mean another $370 million wasted in the next five years,
— Other VA processing responsibilities have suffered because of so much emphasis on reducing the compensation backlog. The number of pending appeals of compensation judgments has increased 18% since 2011 to nearly 270,000.
— Federal law prohibits reservists and National Guard troops from receiving drill pay and VA compensation at the same time. But the VA has failed to check on this, resulting in $50-$100 million in overpaid compensation annually.
Halliday cites an assortment of other problems including thousands of pieces of undelivered mail languishing at an Indianapolis VA processing center.
Read the full VA Inspector General testimony here: http://www.va.gov/OIG/pubs/statements/VAOIG-statement-20140714-halliday.pdf