VA Cites Progress on Backlog; Congress Disagrees

"It has never been acceptable to VA ... that our veterans are experiencing long delays in receiving the benefits they have earned and deserve," Hickey said, adding that she was "saddened and offended" by related problems that have plagued VA health centers in recent months. Investigators have found long waits for appointments at VA hospitals and clinics, and falsified records to cover up the delays.

Halliday, in her report, said she found similar problems with the benefits agency, including faulty claims processing that "increases the risk of improper payments to veterans and their families."

Inspectors surveying Philadelphia's VA benefits center in June found mail bins brimming with claims and associated evidence dating to 2011 that had not been electronically scanned, she said.

Inspectors also found evidence that staffers at the Philadelphia regional office were manipulating dates to make old claims appear newer. The findings are similar to problems in which investigators have found long waits for appointments at VA hospitals and clinics, and falsified records to cover up the delays.

In Baltimore, investigators discovered that an employee had inappropriately stored in his office thousands of documents, including some that contained Social Security data, "for an extensive period of time." About 8,000 documents, including 80 claims folders, unprocessed mail and Social Security information of dead or incarcerated veterans, were stored in the employee's office, Halliday said.

Kristen Ruell, an employee at the VA's Pension Management Center in Philadelphia, told the committee that mail routinely "sat in boxes untouched for years" at the pension office. Once, after becoming concerned that unopened mail was being shredded, Ruell opened the boxes and took photos. Instead of addressing the problem, she said, VA supervisors enacted a policy prohibiting taking photos.

After VA officials in Washington issued a directive last year ordering that a backlog of claims older than 125 days be reduced, the Philadelphia office "took this to mean that they could change the dates of every claim older than six weeks," Ruell said. While pension center managers later told the IG's office that the mislabeling was based on a misunderstanding of the directive, Ruell said, "these behaviors are intentional."

"The VA's problems are a result of morally bankrupt managers that through time and (government service) grade have moved up into powerful positions where they have the power to and continue to ruin people's lives," Ruell said.

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Follow Matthew Daly on Twitter: https://twitter.com/MatthewDalyWDC

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