Unreasonable workloads and poor leadership at the Veterans Affairs facility in Philadelphia have led to mismanagement and delays in handling veterans' disability and pensions claims, according to a government audit released Wednesday.
In a blistering 78-page report, the VA's inspector general cites a litany of problems, all part of a rush to reduce persistent backlogs that go beyond the widely reported wait times for medical care at department facilities.
"There is an immediate need to improve the operation and management," says the report by acting VA inspector general Richard Griffin in urging greater oversight.
Among the issues cited by the IG: mishandled or neglected mail, untimely responses to more than 31,000 veterans inquiries, manipulation of dates to make old claims look new and millions of dollars in duplicate benefit payments. The report said it took an average 312 days for VA employees to respond to inquiries — the VA has a five-day standard for response.
At least one VA supervisor altered 52 of 86 — 60 percent — quality reviews with the knowledge of office managers over three months, making accuracy rate reports "unreliable," the IG said. That employee is no longer doing that job.
The report calls on the agency to determine who should be held responsible for the failings and implement department-wide measures to deter further manipulation of data and waste. Last month, the VA said it had initiated such a review. Results are expected by late June.
The VA said it concurred with the majority of the recommendations; a new director was installed last July and there has been increased training. It said its internal review will help determine whether employees deliberately manipulated data or simply misunderstood policies.
The VA's official in charge of benefits, Allison Hickey, said the VA has moved aggressively to fix problems in Philadelphia since whistleblower complaints surfaced last summer. She cited the agency's budget requests to hire additional claims processors and other staff.
"This is not a new thing, this is a last-year thing," Hickey said.
In a stern rebuttal, the IG report says fresh whistleblower allegations of wrongdoing in Philadelphia are continuing to come in, including a "scheme" to credit staff for training they did not complete.
The House Veterans Affairs committee scheduled a hearing next week on the VA's handling of claims, focusing on Philadelphia and Oakland, California.
Rep. Ryan Costello, R-Philadelphia, a member of the committee, said a culture change was needed at the VA, "starting with firing those responsible for the dysfunctional daily operations."
Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Florida, who chairs the panel, said "VA leaders have a choice" — fire those responsible or continue to have problems.
Zack Hearn, deputy director for claims at the American Legion, said he found the report "extremely concerning," raising questions regarding the extent of problems in the VA. "There seems to be a mass breakdown in the way this regional office operates, and the VA needs to better explain itself," he said.
The Philadelphia regional office oversees the administration of benefits to 825,000 veterans in eastern Pennsylvania, southern New Jersey and Delaware. The site also houses a Pension Management Center, one of three in the nation, servicing more than a dozen states and Puerto Rico.
The audit comes as the VA continues to grapple with fallout related to wait times and falsified records in its health care network, separate from claims processing. The VA last summer found that problems with long patient waits at the Phoenix VA medical center were "systemic," leading to the resignation of VA-secretary Eric Shinseki.
The inspector general said the problems it found in Philadelphia were emblematic of the various complaints it had reviewed at other VA offices. Those trouble spots include Oakland, California; Los Angeles; Little Rock, Arkansas; Baltimore; Houston; and Honolulu, according to the IG.