House lawmakers press VA on claims backlog

House members late Monday grilled Department of Veterans Affairs officials over charges the agency had manipulated benefits claims to make it appear that its massive backlog was shrinking.

The allegations stem from a new report by the VA inspector general that found agency employees, among other things, subtracted cases that were still pending, overpaid benefits and mishandled or intentionally lost paperwork related to claims in a rush to reduce the benefits backlog, which reached over 600,000 last year.

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The backlog, identified as a priority by President Obama, has been cut to about 275,000, Allison Hickey, the VA’s undersecretary for benefits, told the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee.

Hickey, the chief of the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA), which doles out various kinds of compensation to former military members, said her office had completed 1 million claims this year and would finish 1.3 million by the end of the fiscal year.

Her assertions were rejected by committee members.

“I don’t believe anybody at the table is telling the truth from the VA,” Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), the committee chairman, said during a hearing that lasted until nearly 1a.m. “I believe you are hiding the numbers.”

He questioned the VA’s goal of processing claims within 125 days and ripped the VA for the shoddy record-keeping detailed in the new watchdog report.

Linda Halliday, an assistant inspector general, said her office is investigating benefits offices in Baltimore, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Oakland, Houston and Little Rock, Ark., for “data integrity” issues, such as the deliberate destruction of mail-related to claims.

“We are concerned at how quickly the number of [regional offices] with allegations is occurring,” she said.

The allegations against the VBA could mark a new chapter in what has become a summer of scandal for the VA, which is already under investigation by its own inspector general and the Justice Department over systemic patient data manipulation within its national healthcare system.

When asked if she trusted the figures produced by the department, Halliday replied: “No … I don’t want to say I trust them.”

Hickey said she had ordered a 100 percent audit of the VBA’s 56 regional offices and requested outside verification in order to ensure the authenticity of the numbers.

"Just a year ago, the VA was a shining star on the Hill,” Rep. Phil Roe (R-Tenn.) said. “We've lost all of that now."

Hickey told the panel that during her 27-year military career she learned “there’s always someone you thought you could trust” who goes on to use poor judgment.

Rep. David Jolly (R-Fla.) said, “We can have as many oversight hearings as the day is long. ...” But the Obama administration must show it is taking the woes at VA seriously.

“We’re begging for leadership, we’re always begging for leadership,” he said.