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Thursday, March 05, 2009

New VA Report Stirs Up Long-Simmering Veterans Disability Claims Processing Controversy

Just when you think that our beleaguered veterans can relax, that health care improvements are on the way or already there, the latest VA report (yes, another one) confirms we're merely treading water.

While things are all a boil, again, this week, the veterans claims processing backlog (and everything that flows from it) has been a long-simmering problem.

In educational interest, article(s) quoted from extensively.

In October 2007, the Veterans' Disability Benefits Commission released a 544-page report (yes, one of many that year) after 2 1/2 years of studying the DoD and VA benefit claims processing nightmare. What did it find? It concluded that a sweeping system overhaul was needed to fix both systems.

Since then, not one, but two, lawsuits -- both hoping to force the VA to deliver the timely and sufficient health care benefits that military veterans have earned -- were denied on the grounds that federal courts cannot meddle in such things. [More bits of this story in the 'Related' links section in extended.]

But if you're exasperated at now hearing the latest threads of the ongoing saga, of the shredding and hiding and forging and backdating of claims forms by VA personnel falling far behind in their work, imagine how our returning vets are feeling -- especially those who are doing their best to play by the rules, filling out the 20, 30 pages of forms required for a PTSD or other claim and gathering up all of the necessary supporting documents and files (no matter how difficult to acquire).

The looming 6-month to 2-year (or more) claims processing odyssey that our broken system requires our vets to endure is mind boggling to consider for someone who isn't fighting depression or TBI or PTSD. Imagine what it must be like for them.


But, the reality is that they may be exasperated at this latest bit of news, but probably not so much as the rest of us are. They're already living the nightmare. They and their families know only too intimately the frustrations. They know more than any of us would care to -- or dare to.

While many working inside the walls of VA facilities across the country are good, hard-working professionals, those who took the short cut need to realize the full measure of what they've done. They're playing with people's lives. There are living, breathing, struggling people behind each and every one of those forms.

What a lousy way to treat them.

Rick Maze (ever on target) at Military Times:

A new report [all reports] about Veterans Affairs Department employees squirreling away tens of thousands of unopened letters related to benefits claims is sparking fresh concerns that veterans and their survivors are being cheated out of money.

VA officials acknowledge further credibility problems based on a new report of a previously undisclosed 2007 incident in which workers at a Detroit regional office turned in 16,000 pieces of unprocessed mail and 717 documents turned up in New York in December during amnesty periods in which workers were promised no one would be penalized.

“Veterans have lost trust in VA,” Michael Walcoff, VA’s under secretary for benefits, said at a hearing Tuesday. “That loss of trust is understandable, and winning back that trust will not be easy.”

Unprocessed and unopened mail was just one problem in VA claims processing mentioned by Belinda Finn, VA’s assistant inspector general for auditing, in testimony before the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee.

Auditors also found that the dates recorded for receiving claims, which in many cases determine the effective date for benefits payments, are wrong in many cases because of intentional and unintentional errors, Finn said.

The worst case uncovered by auditors involved the New York regional office, where employees testified that managers told staff to put later dates on claims to make it appear claims were being processed faster. A review found that 56 percent of claims had incorrect dates, although no evidence was found of incorrect or delayed benefits payments. Finn said workers reported that this practice had been used for years.

The new report comes as VA is trying to resolve an earlier controversy involving documents essential to the claims process that were discovered in bins awaiting shredding at several regional offices, which raised questions about how many past claims had been delayed or denied because of intentional or unintentional destruction of documentation.

IAVA Director of Government Affairs Todd Bowers on CNN:

Scott Waldman, Albany Times Union:

An investigation by the VA's Office of the Inspector General found that the widespread backdating of claims at the office in Manhattan was not repeated at other offices around the country. But the report recommended safeguards to ensure the backdating wouldn't happen elsewhere.

Director of Veterans Affairs Joseph Collorafi who commuted to the office by train from his Guilderland home was one of six administrators placed on paid leave last year after the backdating was discovered. However, local vets said they received since then paperwork stamped with Collorafi's signature.

An August review of a sample of 390 veterans claims at the New York office found 220, or 56 percent, were purposely altered. The inquiry also discovered more than 700 pieces of unopened mail requiring immediate attention.

The New York office serves more than 800,000 veterans in 31 counties across the state, including the Capital Region.

The report is expected to be part of a U.S. House Committee on Veterans Affairs hearing on document mishandling scheduled for [Wednesday] in Washington, D.C.

The VA has maintained that the claims were altered only in an internal computer system and that they did not delay or cancel veterans' benefits because the dates recorded on paperwork were the ones used for disbursement.

Investigators also looked at VA regional offices in Albuquerque, Boston, San Diego and Winston-Salem to determine if New York office's problems were widespread. Of the almost 100,000 claims examined at those four offices, the VA found only 4.7 were inaccurate, according to the report.

It recommended establishing claim-receipt date accuracy goals that can be used to monitor the internal computer system.

Charles G. Mills, Judge Advocate or general counsel for the New York State American Legion, in the Calaveras Pine Tree News:

Veterans seeking compensation for war injuries first must file an absurdly long form in the regional office. Current law makes it difficult to get the assistance of a lawyer, but veterans are encouraged to get help from a city or county veterans' service agency or a volunteer organization like the American Legion, the Red Cross, or the Disabled American Veterans. The VA accredits many such agencies and organizations, and the quality of their work varies from excellent to not-so-good. They all, however, follow the VA's rules and policies, without questioning whether these are in conflict with the laws Congress has passed.

If applications do not have all of the evidence needed by the claims examiner at the regional office, a letter is sent to veterans and their representatives, if any, specifying what additional evidence is needed, which the department will obtain, and which the veterans must provide. The first several pages of the letter are probably incomprehensible to average veterans, and the meat of the letter is at the end.

Eventually, in three months if veterans are lucky and in five or ten years if not, the claims are awarded or denied. There is currently a backlog of approximately one million claims. A few years ago when the backlog was about 600,000, a major effort was made to reduce it. There have been eight department secretaries, and most have been committed to but not successful at cutting the backlog.

Veterans who receive denials may appeal to the Board of Veterans' Appeals. According to the VA's own numbers in 2004, this process takes 1,041 days. Of this time, 767 days elapse after veterans have completed all paperwork, and 502 days pass while the regional office puts all the papers together, certifies them, and sends them to the board. Veterans may be represented at the board by a lawyer or by a veterans' service agency or organization. The board corrects mistakes such as misreading of the law or regulations by examiners at the regional office and is very friendly to veterans.

If veterans are not satisfied with the results of the appeal, they may appeal to the Court of Appeals for Veterans' Claims. Veterans are frequently represented by quite competent attorneys at this point. In a significant number of cases, veterans win; the board then sends the cases back to the regional office to carry out the court ruling; and the regional office sits on the cases for months or years or does not follow the board's instructions.

Most of the delay and error occurs at the regional offices. Through the writ of mandamus process, the court can direct the VA Secretary to perform the duties of the office. Usually when a writ is requested, the VA's general counsel promises to do it right away and this satisfies the court. At this point the Washington employees of the department and the board do their duty promptly. If, however, anything remains to be done at the regional office, the employees at that level do not seem to understand the seriousness of the matter and can cause further delays of several years.

There are two more layers of appeal: the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, which corrects misinterpretations of the law by the VA, and the Supreme Court.

Mills recommends legal changes to ease the problem. Legislators are already reacting on their own. Imperial Valley News:

On Tuesday, March 3, 2009, the House Veterans’ Affairs Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs Subcommittee, led by Chairman John Hall (D-NY), and the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee, led by Chairman Harry Mitchell (D-AZ), conducted a joint hearing on “Document Tampering and Mishandling at the Veterans Benefits Administration.”

Since October 2008, the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has come under fire for three specific problems: misdating of claims at the New York Regional Office, shredding documents wrongly placed in shredder bins, and denying widows survivor benefits. The hearing focused on the changes put in place by VA to address these problems, return integrity to the disability claims processing system, and regain the trust of veterans.

“In the last few months, we have tracked a problem brought to our attention with misdating of claims information at the New York Regional Office,” said Chairman Hall. “This situation was a clear attempt by managers to fudge performance numbers. The incorrectly entered data made the regional office look like it took fewer days to process claims than in actuality – yet still beyond acceptable levels to me, or to most veterans. Although veterans were not directly harmed by this practice, since the effective date of a claim was logged correctly in a different system, perpetrators of this kind of dishonestly impact the entire veteran community’s ability to trust the institution charged with its welfare. This is shameful!”

After conducting site visits to several other regional offices, the VA Office of Inspector General (OIG) issued a report on February 27, 2009, entitled “Review of VA Regional Office Compensation and Pension Benefits Claim Receipt Dates,” which is available at this link: OIG Report. The OIG found that “the claim date inaccuracies were mostly unintentional errors” at the other regional offices. Assistant Inspector General for Auditing Belinda Finn stated that “the errors we reviewed did not cause any veterans or their beneficiaries to receive incorrect or delayed benefit payments.”

The Subcommittees also addressed the OIG mail room audit which found documents inappropriately placed in shredder bins – documents necessary to process claims as well as documents that should have been retuned to the veteran. Deputy Under Secretary for Benefits Michael Walcoff testified that VA took immediate actions in response to preliminary reports, which included a temporary cessation of shredding until it was able to relocate all shred bins and equipment to VBA management offices and inventory all claims-related mail or original supporting documents. Additionally, VA instituted new policies on shredding that require two signatures on papers to be destroyed. Walcoff said, “This effort identified 474 documents affecting benefit entitlement inappropriately placed in shred bins for disposal. These 474 documents and the 45 documents indentified by the OIG were found at 41 of our 57 regional offices and centers.” VBA also developed an 8-point plan of action to strengthen policies and procedures to safeguard veterans’ paper records. That plan is detailed here: VBA 8-Point Plan of Action

Assistant IG Finn testified that the extent of the inappropriate claim-related shredding cannot be determined and also noted that lack of controls at the various VBA regional offices (VAROs) contributed to the mishandling of claims. Finn further stated,

“VBA officials also said that some VAROs held ‘mail amnesty’ periods to encourage employees to turn in unprocessed mail and other documents without penalty or repercussions. During an amnesty period in July 2007 at VARO Detroit, VARO employees turned in almost 16,000 pieces of unprocessed mail including 700 claims and 2,700 medical records and/or pieces of medical information. The VARO determined that none of these claims or documents were in VBA information systems or associated claim files. VBA management told us of similar amnesties at other VAROs, such as an amnesty at VARO New York in December 2008 that recovered 717 documents from VARO employees.”


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