VA Watchdog Can’t Prove Calif. Facility Sat on Thousands of Claims

Paralyzed Army veteran Gene Laureano sits in his wheelchair Dec. 16, 2015, in Bronx, N.Y. Paralyzed Army veteran Gene Laureano sits in his wheelchair Dec. 16, 2015, in Bronx, N.Y. Mel Evans/Associated Press

The watchdog for the Veterans Affairs Department could not prove that the Oakland, Calif., regional office sat on more than 13,000 informal claims for benefits, delaying payments -- an allegation that emerged during an April 2015 congressional hearing.  

While the inspector general didn’t find evidence to substantiate an allegation that such a list existed, the watchdog in a new review found errors in other informal claims processing that led to $26,325 in improper payments to vets – mostly overpayments – as well as some significant delays in getting benefits to veterans. One veteran who filed a claim for post-traumatic stress in 2006 waited nearly eight years to receive proper compensation. IG staff looked at 60 informal claims out of 1,308 claims, finding problems with six of them.

House lawmakers had asked the inspector general during an April 2015 congressional hearing to look into an allegation claiming management at the Oakland facility maintained a list of 13,184 unprocessed informal claims for benefits. That hearing featured disturbing stories from whistleblowers at VA’s Oakland regional office and its Philadelphia facility, ranging from abusive work environments to some employees’ constant fears of being fired for not processing claims fast enough. A February 2015 IG report found that Oakland staff had not processed thousands of informal requests for benefits dating back years, and had improperly stored formal claims.

Vets can file what are known as informal claims, which before March 2015 could be as simple as a handwritten note indicating their intent to formally apply for benefits. The idea behind the informal claims process is to allow vets to receive benefits backdated to when they first indicate a desire to seek compensation. VA however last year announced it was going to tighten up the informal claims process and require standard documentation. Vets’ groups have sued the department saying the change burdens veterans, particularly older vets.

The IG’s latest report, like its February 2015 investigation, blamed poor training and a lack of management oversight for informal claims processing mistakes and delays. “Staff stated, and we confirmed, that completing the processing of the informal claims was not a priority and the review was conducted sporadically, with staff dividing their time to address other higher priority workloads,” the January 2016 report said. Staff told the watchdog there was confusion over what constituted an acceptable informal claim when documentation came from a service organization on behalf of the veteran.

VA staff’s incomplete record-keeping might have contributed to the IG’s inability to find any evidence of the alleged list of more than 13,000 informal claims. “The individuals we interviewed stated that they were not aware of, nor could they substantiate, the existence of a complete list of all the informal claims found in 2012,” the watchdog said. “VARO [VA Regional Office] staff who were involved in the special informal claim review project in 2012 told us they were not recording or reporting their reviews by claim numbers; rather, they were only documenting the number of reviews completed.”

Also in the course of the IG’s investigation, the watchdog “obtained an additional list of 690 claim numbers from VBA’s [Veterans Benefits Administration] Corporate Database that appear to be informal claims that VARO management discovered on a cart while the VARO was undergoing construction from April through May 2014,” the report said.

The IG recommended the VA do a complete review of the 690 claims, which the department has done. VA plans to review the remaining 1,248 informal claims (from the original 1,308) by May 31. 

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