Department of Veterans Affairs officials manipulated veteran appointment data and shredded an untold number of documents, including mail, to fraudulently reduce the insurmountable backlog of veterans waiting to receive care and to maintain positive numbers and receive bonuses, according to whistleblower testimony with the House Committee on Veterans Affairs on Monday night.
“In our office we would receive emails… They (administrators) were instructing us to change the dates on any claims – regardless of the circumstances if they were older than a certain date,” testified Kristen Ruell, a quality review specialist at the Philadelphia Veterans Benefits Administration.
“I went down to the file room and I wanted to see for myself what was going on, and I saw these (96 of them) boxes that were labeled 2010 claims, 2011 claims, 2012 claims to be shredded,” Ruell said.
Ruell, an attorney who has worked for the VA for nearly seven years, said she is not allowed to issue complaints to superiors, that important documents are being shredded, beneficiaries are receiving improper (or duplicate) payments and that the Internal Revenue Service is not being notified about lost funds.
“I had tried using the chain of command, to only find out the chain was corrupt and management nor the central office had any interest in hearing about any problems at the agency, regardless of the extent,” she said. “The VA’s problems are the result of morally bankrupt managers that, through time and grade, have moved up to powerful positions where they have the power to, and continue to, ruin people’s lives.”
The VA inappropriately reported 17,600 of 56,500 claims, resulting in $40.4 million in improper payments as part of a recently-ditched effort to address claims older than two years by 2015, according to a VA Inspector General report released Monday.
“Staff at the Houston, Huntington, and Waco VAROs (Veterans Affairs Regional Offices) reported they felt pressured to make final or provisional decisions without all of the necessary evidence in order to close the claims,” according to the report.
Business As Usual
Javiero Soto, a rating veterans service representative at the Florida Regional VBA office in St. Petersburg, testified that he was fired without cause a little more than two weeks after acting-VA Secretary Sloan Gibson released a statement on protecting whistleblowers.
“In my opinion, the problems at VBA result from setting goals so fantastic and unrealistic that the results could have been predicted,” said Soto. “Management focused on creative number crunching and not the veteran.”
Soto published an accuracy report on Veterans Services Representative operations on June 24, 2014. It was distributed to employees and management on June 26, and Soto received an email on June 30, which read simply: “Your services are no longer required.”
Soto, a 14-year employee with the VA, tried to voice concerns up the chain of command.
“But I got nowhere,” he said. “They also took complaints personally. In my view, presently, we can not tell what the accuracy rate for claims processing may be. Data varies widely.”
“VBA is still running guns blazing on this questionable path without a real plan, without real change,” said Committee Chair Rep. Jeff Miller (R-FL).
The House and Senate recently passed bills (and must now negotiate on a compromise) that make it easier to fire upper-level management, while extending medical coverage for veterans to receive care at private facilities.
White House Deputy Chief of Staff Rob Nabors was tasked by President Obama to straighten out the VA in May. Nabors reported back on June 27 that staff morale and quality of care are stifled by a “corrosive culture”.
“There is a culture that tends to minimize problems or refuse to acknowledge problems all together,” Nabors reported.
-Upgrade the VA’s VistA computer system by fiscal year 2015. The VistA system premiered in 1985 and predates widespread Internet usage.
-VA should release performance metrics to Congressional overseers on a quarterly basis.
The House Committee on Veterans Affairs will conduct the following hearing on July 24: Restoring Trust: The View of the Acting Secretary and the Veterans Community