Hidden, Lost, and Unopened Benefits Letters at the VA

Friday, March 06, 2009

Veterans and their survivors are being cheated out of their money, as tens of thousands of unopened letters related to benefits claims are being stashed away, tampered with, or destroyed by employees of the Veterans Affairs Department, according to a new report.

The report entitled “Review of VA Regional Office Compensation and Pension Benefits Claim Receipt Dates,” (PDF) conducted by VA Office of Inspector General (OIG), was intended to probe at least one of the three problems that have been plaguing the VA since October 2008: misdating of claims at the New York Regional Office, shredding documents wrongly placed in shredder bins, and denying widows survivor benefits.
Auditors found that the dates recorded for received claims were wrong in many cases. According to Assistant Inspector General for Auditing Belinda Finn “the claim date inaccuracies were mostly unintentional errors.” The worst case was uncovered at a regional office in New York, where auditors reported that 56 percent of claims had incorrect dates.  Employees at this NY office testified that managers told staff to put later dates on claims to make it appear claims were being processed faster. Finn stated that in this case, “the errors we reviewed did not cause any veterans or their beneficiaries to receive incorrect or delayed benefit payments.”
The other breach in the VA was found in the mail rooms at several regional offices where documents essential to the claims process were found in bins awaiting to be shredded. A total of 519 misplaced documents were identified in an initial effort to solve the problem.
The new report confirms credibility problems with the VA that surfaced after a 2007 incident in which workers at a Detroit regional office turned in 16,000 pieces of unprocessed mail during an “amnesty” period in which workers were promised no one would be penalized. Another 717 documents also turned up in New York in December.
Veterans have been complaining about the VA’s benefits process for years and this report is “only the tip of the iceberg,” as Chairman John Hall (D-NY), of the House Veterans’ Affairs Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs Subcommittee, pointed out.
“Veterans have lost trust in VA,” said Michael Walcoff,, the VA’s under secretary for benefits. “That loss of trust is understandable, and winning back that trust will not be easy.”
Although the VA has made the first step in acknowledging and identifying these internal problems, there is no clear short-term fix. Even the permanent solution—to have a fully electronic claims process system—is not expected to  be in place until 2011.
                                                                                                                                  -Aaron Wallechinsky
Unopened Claims Letters Hidden at VA Offices (by Rick Maze, Federal Times)
Review of VA Regional Office Compensation and Pension Benefit Claim Receipt Dates (Office of the Inspector General, Department of Veterans Affairs) (PDF)


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