A report issued April 15 by the Department of Veterans Affairs Office of Inspector General (VAOIG) has substantiated gross mismanagement, negligence and misconduct at the VA Regional Office (VARO) in Philadelphia.
Violations included the entering of false dates on veterans' benefits claims, altering results on quality reviews, hiding unprocessed mail, delaying the scanning and uploading of documents, and failing to provide a safe work environment for employees.
Michael D. Helm, national commander of The American Legion said the report's findings reinforced his serious concerns about the quality of operations at the Philadelphia VARO.
“The fact that VA's own inspector general is finding significant instances of mismanagement at the VA Regional Office in Philadelphia is extremely disturbing, to say the least,” Helm said.
“Like the previous scandals revealed last year, the serious deficiencies in Philadelphia do not appear to be limited to just one place. Complaints are coming in from VARO's in Oakland, Los Angeles, Little Rock, Baltimore, Houston and Honolulu. It is far past the time for VA to restore in earnest the trust that has been lost by the veterans, whom it was intended to serve.”
Allison Hickey, VA's under secretary for benefits, said in an April 20 conference call that an "active internal investigation" is under way to look at who might be held accountable for these issues. She said she has asked investigators to focus on two IG findings: that large quantities of mail were found unprocessed, and that a quality review team supervisor had altered the results of quality reviews of workers' claims processing. Hickey also said that the Philadelphia VARO had falsified the dates on veterans' benefit claims due to a "misinterpretation" of a 2013 headquarters memo.
The VAOIG examination which began in June 2014 concluded that the office failed to answer over 31,000 email inquiries for nearly one year instead of the specified five working days; did not process bins of mail, failing to date stamp them or scan them into the electronic processing system; and failed to answer notices of disagreement (a Veterans request to contest a disability finding) within the specified seven days - instead taking nearly four months to respond. The report also found a March 2015 scheme to credit VARO staff for training they did not complete, and a December 2014 complaint that the mail situation at the Philadelphia VARO had gotten worse and alleged that VARO management continues to cover up the problem.
“It is unfortunate that VA leadership, when asked, failed to describe more accurately the situation in Philadelphia,” Helm said. “Such important work that means so much to the quality of life for our veterans can't be handled so incompetently.”
The Philadelphia VARO is one of the largest in the country, administering about $4 billion in benefits payments for about 825,000 veterans and family members.
On April 22, the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs will hold a hearing: “Philadelphia and Oakland: Systemic Failures and Mismanagement" in part to review the VAOIG report of issues in the Philadelphia VARO.