The VA Scandal Just Keeps Spreading

Vietnam veteran Louis Albin, who served in the U.S. Navy, listens during a town hall meeting in Phoenix concerning health-care issues at the Phoenix VA facilities. Vietnam veteran Louis Albin, who served in the U.S. Navy, listens during a town hall meeting in Phoenix concerning health-care issues at the Phoenix VA facilities. Ralph Freso/AP

The scandal that erupted over allegations of data manipulation at the Department of Veterans Affairs medical facility in Phoenix has now spread to the department's disability claims.

At a hearing Monday, House lawmakers questioned whether the laserlike focus by the Veterans Benefits Administration on ending the pension and compensation claims in 2015 has caused the rest of its workload to suffer.

"Whatever win you attempt to take credit for in 2015, you will not be celebrated," said House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller during his opening statement at the hearing.

The VA adopted a goal under Eric Shinseki--who stepped down as VA secretary earlier this year--to complete all disability compensation and pension claims within 125 days at 98 percent accuracy.

But those claims make up a minority of the Veterans Benefits Administration's total pay and pension workload. While the number of pension and compensation claims has gone down, the mountain of other claims--including appeals--is growing.

"Somebody would have to be asleep at the wheel to not realize these things are going on," said Ronald Robinson, who has worked at the VA in South Carolina for more than a decade.

Robinson was one of three former or current department employees from across the country who told the House Veterans Affairs Committee that they were retaliated against for raising concerns that pressure to meet deadlines has led to instances of altering a veteran's claim information, including when the VA received the claim.

The VA has been embroiled in scandal in recent months because of allegations that staffers within the VA's health care agency cooked the books on how long veterans waited before they received a medical appointment.

The House Veterans Affairs Committee has held a string of hearings on problems within the VA, and Monday's witnesses—like those before them—pointed to a lack of leadership.

"The VA's problems are a result of morally bankrupt managers," said Kristen Ruell, who works in the Veterans Benefits Administration's Philadelphia office, adding that she believes she has been retaliated against for raising concerns about how claims are handled in her office.

Their testimony follows a string of reports released Monday from the VA's Office of Inspector General that suggest that VA workers were making errors in a rush to cut down the number of claims.

One report from the Inspector General revealed that a worker in the VA's Baltimore regional office inappropriately stored 8,000 documents that could impact benefits payments.

Meanwhile, the VA on Monday touted that it has processed a million claims so far during fiscal year 2014, and it expects to bring the total to 1.3 million claims by the end of September. The department has had "tremendous success" toward ending the backlog next year, said Allison Hickey, the under secretary for benefits, in a statement.

But Ruell said that "if you have a different kind of claim, it might not be included in the definition of the backlog."

And Linda Halliday, the assistant inspector general for audits and evaluations, said in her prepared testimony that the VA has focused on cutting the backlog to the determinant of its other workloads—some of which are growing "at an alarming rate."

Halliday said the VA also needs better financial regulations. The VA's Inspector General's office found in an audit of claims where veterans were granted 100-percent disability on a temporary basis that the VA could pay roughly $371 million in unnecessary payments over the next five years due to lack of follow-up evaluations for those veterans.

Halliday also told lawmakers that the Inspector General's office is looking into data-integrity issues with VA claims at its offices in Baltimore, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Oakland, Houston, and Little Rock, Ark.

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