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Veterans Affairs officials are scrambling to find reasons their promises can be trusted after more allegations of mismanagement and wrongdoing — this time with benefits claims — surfaced this week.
In frustrated, sometimes frantic testimony before the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee on Monday night, VA Undersecretary for Benefits Allison Hickey promised that department claims processors are making significant progress in addressing lingering claims processing problems.
“I know that you don’t trust what we’re saying,” Hickey told lawmakers. “But I want every veteran in this country and all of you to believe us when we say we’re making good decisions. We care so much about those veterans … and they deserve nothing less from us.”
But her pleas came after almost three hours of testimony from department whistleblowers who chronicled problems with gaming claims processing numbers, mishandled paperwork, questionable orders from middle management and retribution for employees who spoke out about the problems.
The allegations were punctuated by officials from the VA inspector general’s office, who said they have no confidence in any data being provided by department benefits officials, citing numerous problems in how the information is tracked and recorded.
“At this point, I can’t trust their numbers,” Assistant Inspector General Linda Halliday told members of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee. “We have a lot of work ahead to investigate the allegations we’ve received, and they all seem to focus on data integrity.
The latest scandal mirrors previous problems in other VA agencies, several of which have forced the resignation of multiple top department officials. In the last three months, VA has lost most of its top leadership — including former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki — amid accusations that officials have allowed a culture of corruption and apathy to take hold.
Disability claims processing had been a bright spot in recent months for VA officials. According to department statistics, the claims backlog — the number of first-time disability compensation requests pending for more than 125 days — has dropped almost 56 percent in the last 15 months, and is on pace to zero out next year.
But lawmakers and the inspector general’s office cast doubt on whether that progress is authentic. Halliday said some cases were shuffled around and reclassified to avoid counting against the backlog, while others were rushed and improperly rated to clear department goals.
The inspector general report said that rush may have led to VA overpayments to tens of thousands of veterans by more than $370 million over the next five years, while thousands of other cases featured varied level of mistakes.
Lawmakers also noted that since the focus on the backlog began in spring 2013, VA has seen a steady rise in claim appeals and dependency cases.
Hickey acknowledged there is more work to be done, but insisted the department’s recent efforts to shift from paper processing to digital files will pay dividends in years to come.
But lawmakers furiously attacked her past statements promising progress on the backlog and the larger issues surrounding benefits cases. Committee chairman Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., flatly told Hickey he did not believe her testimony or any of the evidence defending the department.
VA officials have repeatedly apologized and pledged to rebuild veterans’ trust in the system in recent appearances before the committee, but have found those promises undermined by new accusations with each visit.
Miller accused VA officials in Philadelphia of trying to secretly record committee staff meetings with whistleblowers there, and of insulting those staffers when they pressed for more answers.
A week earlier, department officials had to apologize for new allegations of retaliation against whistleblowers. A week before that, it was new claims of health care appointment delays and manipulated data.
On Wednesday, acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson is scheduled to testify on the other side of Capitol Hill, before the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee. His recent public comments have echoed those themes of remorse and rebuilding trust, and he’ll be faced with the same questions of how the department can overcome its recent failures.