Lawmakers rip VA over benefits backlog flubs

Members of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee on Monday ripped the Veterans Affairs Department for covering up mistakes as it rushed to reduce its mammoth disability claims backlog.

The department’s benefits system is plagued by the same “corruption and bullying” as the VA’s scandal-ridden healthcare system, panel chairman Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) said in his opening statement.

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The agency's goal of processing any claim within 125 days at a 98 percent accuracy level, established by former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, “however well intentioned,” has become a distraction, he added.

The VA “cannot morally claim success” if it comes at the expense of other services throughout the department, according to Rep. Mike Michaud (D-Maine), the panel’s ranking member.

Their comments come in response to new findings by the agency’s inspector general that found the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA), which provides various forms of monetary compensation to former military members, made a rash of mistakes as it struggled to reduce the claims backlog.

Errors included roughly 8,000 claims being removed even though no final decision had been rendered, improperly paying out millions and misplacing thousands of claims and claims-related documents, according to advance testimony by Linda Halliday, an assistant VA inspector general.

Her testimony stood in stark contrast to comments Allison Hickey, VA’s undersecretary for benefits, made in a statement saying the agency had processed 1 million claims to date and would finish 1.3 million by the end of the fiscal year.

The VBA is “running guns blazing on this questionable path without a real plan,” Miller said, noting that the VA has had a monthly 20-hour overtime mandate in place for claims processors at many regional offices for over a year to "push claims out the door."

He showed an email shared by an unidentified employee that read: “the only possible consequences are if we fail to meet our goals. Even if it goes against our work values.”

Rep. Dan Benishek (R-Mich.) said the panel had been told the VA was making progress on its backlog and are only now finding out "it's all baloney."

"It's unbelievable," he said.

Miller admonished the agency, warning, “Whatever hurray you shout, whatever win you attempt to take credit for in 2015, you will not be celebrating” if the gains were made through manipulated statistics. 

The latest accusations signal yet another setback for the troubled department, which is already under investigation by the Justice Department over falsified patient wait times throughout the VA’s medical network.

Both Hickey and Halliday are due to appear before the House panel later on Monday night.