Workers at a Detroit regional office turned in 16,000 pieces of unprocessed mail and 717 documents turned up in New York in December [2007] during amnesty periods in which workers were promised no one would be penalized.

Military Times: Unopened claims letters hidden at VA offices

A new report 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 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.

"A large section of the veterans community and representatives of the community have long felt that the Veterans Benefits Administration operates in such a way that stalls the claims process until frustrated claimants either give up or die," Baker said.

He said that although he doesn’t believe that is true, something must be done.

"Denying earned benefits by illegally destroying records should serve as the proverbial wake-up call that signals the urgency of this overdue transformation," he said. Read On...

Click here to read testimony or watch the hearing in its entirety.

Be sure to read or watch the testimony of Ronald B. Abrams Joint Executive Director, National Veterans Legal Services Program.

NVLSP believes that long-standing VA policies were the major cause of this employee misconduct. The method that the VA uses to grant work credit and assess the performance of VA officials is the main culprit. The performance of VA employees/managers is judged (in part) by the number of benefits claims completed during a given time period, usually a calendar or fiscal year. Completion of a large number of claims is essentially considered the equivalent of good work performance.

In the experience of NVLSP, (over ten years of quality reviews, in conjunction with The American Legion of approximately 40 different VAROs combined with extensive NVLSP representation before the CAVC and the BVA), most of the most egregious VA errors and misconduct involve an attempt to prematurely issue a decision on a claim before the evidence the VA is required to obtain to help the veteran substantiate his or her claim is associated with the VA claims file.  This rush to judgment is caused by pressure to quickly complete adjudications. Many VA managers emphasize quantity over quality. VA employees have formally complained that the culture in the VA regional offices emphasizes quantity to the detriment of quality.

The major cause of VA employee misconduct is a VA work credit system that prevents the fair adjudication of many claims for VA benefits generating extra work for the VA and major problems for claimants. Also, the inadequate quality of many VA adjudications and the inadequate number of trained adjudicators contribute to the size of the backlog which pressures VA employees to take unlawful shortcuts in adjudicating claims. Read on...

Originally posted to Ernie1812 on Wed Mar 04, 2009 at 10:56 AM PST.

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