WASHINGTON (AP) — The Department of Veterans Affairs said Wednesday it has launched a top-down review of its handling of disability claims and pledged to punish those who falsify data as pressure mounted on Capitol Hill for personnel changes amid mismanagement investigations in Philadelphia and other VA facilities.
Separately, the office of the VA inspector general said it had widened its review of the Philadelphia office, investigating two senior leaders for misconduct.
Testifying before a House panel, Danny Pummill, VA's principal deputy undersecretary for benefits, acknowledged that the department may have put undue pressure on overworked employees to reduce persistent backlogs, including mandatory overtime and a productivity-based system that may have encouraged some to cut corners.
Pummill said the department is working to stem any mismanagement and had started a 180-day review to better assess staffing needs and other changes.
"It's wrong, it shouldn't have happened and we as an organization have to do better," Pummill said. "We ask a lot of our employees, and we know the standards we have right now are probably not the right standards."
A blistering report by the VA inspector general last week found widespread problems in Philadelphia: mishandled or neglected mail, dates manipulated to make old claims look new, altered quality reviews and $2.2 million in duplicate benefit payments. More than 31,000 veterans' inquiries encountered delays — an average of 312 days, compared with a five-day VA standard for response.
On Wednesday, VA assistant inspector general Linda Halliday described the Philadelphia office as the worst the IG's office had seen, citing a "blatant disregard of policies." She told the House Veterans Affairs Committee that her office was now reviewing two senior leaders in Philadelphia for potential misuse of position, but she declined to comment on specifics.
"The big issue in Philadelphia was management and why the supervisory controls broke so badly ... I think we need more management changes than we've seen," she said.
The VA said a top manager and the employee who altered quality reviews had been temporarily reassigned, pending an internal review by VA to determine disciplinary action. Pummill said the VA would hand down the "harshest action" warranted; that review is slated for completion by late June.
The IG's office said the problems in Philadelphia had been investigated at 12 out of the VA's 56 regional offices. Besides Philadelphia, the IG substantiated at least some of the complaints at seven others — Baltimore; Boston; Houston; Honolulu; Little Rock, Arkansas; Los Angeles; and Oakland, California. Audits in four other offices — Denver, New York, St. Paul, Minnesota, and San Diego — are pending.
The House panel also heard allegations of continuing problems in Oakland, in which more than 13,000 veterans claims sat in a file cabinet for years. The VA says the paperwork involved duplicate claims, but the IG cited poor record-keeping and said its review based on recent whistleblower information indicated that many of the claims had been unprocessed and were awaiting action.
Lawmakers from both parties urged wide changes.
"It sounds like the Philadelphia and Oakland offices are due for a leadership shake-up at all levels," said Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Fla., the top Democrat on the panel. Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., decried an "ethical bankruptcy" at the VA, saying a culture change was needed.
Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., who chairs the panel, grilled the new director of the Philadelphia office, Diana Rubens, as to why she requested and received more than $300,000 in relocation costs for her move last summer from VA headquarters in Washington. More than two-thirds of the payment was a fee paid to a third-party contractor under a government program to sell a federal employee's house at a later date when it can't immediately be sold.
Rubens said she requested the payment to expedite her move to Philadelphia, but Miller suggested that Rubens did not meet the qualifications for the payment. The IG is reviewing the expenses.
"At VA it's become an entitlement, in which taxpayers are forced to subsidize the real estate choices of already generously compensated VA executives," Miller said in calling on VA to suspend those type of payments.
The delays in veterans' compensation claims add to recent scrutiny of the VA, which found last year that long patient waits and falsified records at the Phoenix VA medical center were "systemic," leading to the resignation of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki.
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.
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