WASHINGTON (AP) — The Veterans Affairs official overseeing benefits is pledging aggressive action to address charges of mismanagement of disability claims, saying the agency has improved training, streamlined applications and taken steps to hold people accountable.
Allison Hickey, the VA's undersecretary for benefits, spoke to The Associated Press on Wednesday in advance of an inspector general report expected early next month examining complaints about the mishandling of claims at the Philadelphia Veterans Affairs Regional Office.
She said that since whistleblower complaints emerged last summer, the VA has worked quickly to install a new regional office director, provide training and put into place additional protections for whistleblowers. She also pointed to a new streamlined VA application process announced Wednesday that will allow veterans nationwide seeking disability, pension or survivor benefits to use standardized forms for claims and appeals that she says will make it easier and quicker for processors to handle.
"By the time the IG report is released, people will see that 90 to 95 percent of the report will long have been resolved or is in aggressive process of resolution," Hickey said. "I wasn't going to make veterans or family members wait on improvements as we wait for an investigation."
Separately, Republican Rep. Jeff Miller, chairman of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, called on the VA to explain why the new director of the Philadelphia office, Diana Rubens, received $288,206.77 in relocation expenses for her move from VA headquarters in Washington, D.C., to Philadelphia last summer. The VA confirmed the payment Wednesday in response to a letter from Miller, seeking a detailed accounting of the payments based on a whistleblower complaint.
VA spokesman Steve Westerfeld described the payments to Rubens as "appropriate" and in accordance with government policy that provides reimbursements for expenses including transportation, mortgage payments if a house can't be sold and house-hunting trips. He did not immediately provide a breakdown of Ruben's expenses. A spokeswoman for the inspector general's office said it was reviewing Miller's request to investigate the payments.
In terms of the disability claims, Hickey declined to comment specifically on the report or on acting inspector general Richard Griffin's public description of circumstances in Philadelphia as "very bad" compared to other VA facilities. Excerpts of the draft report show the inspector general making 35 recommendations aimed at addressing whistleblower complaints of mishandled mail and manipulation of dates to make old claims look new, many of them focused on internal reviews to gauge whether the mishandling of claims were intentionally done to whittle down backlogs and to "restore accountability" in quality control.
The VA launched a high-level administrative investigation board review this week at the Philadelphia office to determine what processes or people might be to blame for the problems. Hickey said that investigation, expected to be completed by June, will help her determine whether there was "a violation of integrity" that might lead to disciplinary action or a misapplication of VA policies that might warrant additional training.
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, that services more than a dozen states and Puerto Rico.
Hickey said the VA has asked Congress for more money to hire up to 1,700 additional claims processors and other employees in VA facilities. The agency is also working to move its pensions claims onto a new, electronic paperless system.
According to the VA, it now has 201,000 disability and compensations claims on "backlog," defined as pending over 125 days. That's down 67 percent from a peak of 611,000 in March 2013.
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