VA Releases Scathing Report on Its Philadelphia Regional Office

VA Releases Report on Its Philadelphia Regional Office

The following report summary of alleged data manipulation and mismanagement at the VA's Regional Office in Philadelphia, Pa., was released April 15, 2015, by the Office of Inspector General of the Department of Veterans Affairs. The actual findings (cited below) should be read by every American, not just veterans.

"In late May 2014, the VA Office of Inspector General (OIG) began receiving a number of allegations through the VA OIG Hotline of mismanagement at the Philadelphia Regional Office (VARO). Many of these allegations included indicators that staff had a serious mistrust of VARO management. On June 19, 2014, VA OIG benefits inspectors, auditors and criminal and administrative investigators began a comprehensive review of conditions at the Philadelphia VARO. Overall, OIG staff conducted over 100 interviews with VARO management and staff to assess the merits of multiple allegations of wrongdoing. We substantiated serious issues involving mismanagement and distrust of VARO management impeding the effectiveness of its operations and services to  veterans. Overall, OIG made 35 recommendations for improvement at the Philadelphia VARO, encompassing mismanagement of VA resources resulting in compromised data integrity, lack of financial stewardship, and lack of confidence in management's ability to effectively manage workload, to include mail management and in protecting documents containing personally identifiable information. There is an immediate need to improve the operation and management of this VARO and take actions to ensure a more effective work environment. Further, the extent to which management oversight has been determined to be ineffective and/or lacking  requires VBA's oversight and action. It is imperative to ensure VBA leadership and the VARO Director implement plans to ensure the unprocessed workload we identified is processed and to provide appropriate oversight that is critical to minimizing the potential future financial risk of making inaccurate benefit payments. This includes maintaining oversight needed to ensure all future workload is processed timely and in ensuring the accurate and timely delivery of benefits and services."

That's a lot of words, but they don't provide the details of the horrendous situation they found, and that may still exist, in the VA's Philadelphia Regional Office.  Here are the details of that investigation by the VA's Office of the Inspector General:

  •  We substantiated allegations involving data integrity concluding that Veteran Benefits Administration (VBA) guidance for adjusting dates of claims of unadjudicated claims had been misapplied. Ultimately, processing actions led to introducing information into veterans' claims that misrepresented the actual time a veteran waited for his or her claim to be processed. Further, this VARO lost the ability to determine to what extent VARO staff adjusted dates of claims and it lacked an audit trail to help identify claims that were adjusted.
  •  We confirm that one supervisor from the VARO's Quality Review Team inappropriately altered the results of individual quality reviews. VARO management within the Veterans Service Center (VSC) was aware of the situation, but did nothing to stop the actions. As a result, these actions may have compromised the accuracy of claims processed and the reported accuracy rates are considered unreliable.
  • We confirmed that VARO did not process Notices of Disagreement within 7 days as required by policy. Delays in entering Notices of Disagreement generally resulted from inefficient workload practices that included disorganized storage, misrouted mail and an increase in workload after the Philadelphia VARO took responsibility for the appeals inventory at the Wilmington VARO. On average, the VARO exceeded the 7-day standard by 126 days.
  • We substantiated that Philadelphia Pension Management Center staff did not respond timely to more than 31,000 inquiries that had been pending on average for 312 days. VBA has a 5-day standard for responding to inquiries. VBA's Area Office provided support to process the backlog of inquiries; however, as of July 2014, we found the number of pending inquiries to be excessive and not processed timely. Inquiries were mismanaged, leaving questions from customers  about benefits and services without answers or assistance. VARO management failed to ensure adequate staffing and prioritization of this workload.
  • We did not substantiate that VARO management relocated two pallets of boxes containing potential old claims to conceal the boxes from congressional  representatives visiting the VARO.
  • We confirmed, and VARO management agreed, that supervisors had retained the  documents longer than VA's records management schedule allowed. This occurred because VARO management lacked effective oversight of its records management program.
  • We substantiated that VARO staff did not take timely actions to merge duplicate records. We determined that 23 percent of the beneficiaries with duplicate records that we reviewed received improper payments valued at about $2.2 million. We determined that neither VBA nor the VARO have efficiency processes for identifying duplicate records and that VBA lacks timeliness standards for terminating improper payments upon identification. VBA has reports that identify duplicate payments on a national level, however VARO staff we interviewed were unaware the reports existed. Improvement is needed in financial stewardship to  correct and stop duplicate payments (which) represent a waste of taxpayer funds.
  • The allegation was substantiated that one employee hid four bins of unprocessed mail; however OIG criminal investigators reviewed and closed this case upon determining no records/mail had been destroyed, the employee was no longer employed by VA and VARO management had implemented a plan to process this mail.
  • VARO management did not ensure adequate control of its date stamping equipment or that access and use of the equipment was limited to authorized staff. We observed easy access to the keys needed to change date information within the Intake Processing Center workspace and a general lack of controls over keys. Inadequate security of date-stamping  equipment and uncontrolled access to keys needed to adjust the date information puts the VARO at increased risk for abuses. The Under Secretary for Benefits (USB) reported she took corrective actions in response to  the Management Advisory Memorandum we issues on June 20, 2014.
  • We found that VARO staff did not consistently comply with VBA policy for mail processing. Strict compliance is important to ensure accurate dates of veterans' entitlement for an award, tracking of claims processing timeliness and monitoring internal workflow.
  • On June 19, 2014, we identified 68 boxes of mail, which VARO management described as a backlog of completed claims waiting for VARO staff to scan into Virtual VA (VVA). Untimely scanning of documents into the VVA system was evident. VARO management confirmed the backlog of unscanned VVA documents began in 2010. Upon return to the site (four days later), we found that 20 boxes of mail had been scanned over the weekend. We estimated the remaining 48 boxes contained an estimated 16,600 documents related to completed claims. We found that delays in scanning this documentation persisted in spite of a prior recommendation for improvement from VBA's Pension and Fiduciary site review team. However, the review team did not follow up to  ensure actions were taken.
  • VARO management did not ensure staff processed returned mail timely. We observed 98 boxes of mail containing approximately 22,000 items of returned mail. This type of mail requires action to identify better addresses. When VARO staff cannot identify a new address, they are expected to annotate the mail and associate it with claim folder. We sampled this mail and determined it was mail received between August 2010 and February 2013. Three of the 96 items sampled contained time- sensitive documents and had the potential to affect veterans' benefits. This mail was also identified during VBA's Pension and Fiduciary site visit team reviews and established as an action item to improve the Pension Management Center's returned mail procedures. However, the mail had never been processed.
  • We confirmed that (VARO's) Pension Management Center (PMC) staff mishandled military file mail. We projected about 6,416 documents, categorized as unidentifiable military mail, could be identified using information in VBA systems. We did not find an instance where staff destroyed military mail prematurely, however lapses in management oversight and a general lack of accountability for ensuring proper screening of military mail prior to destruction provided opportunities to do so.
  • VARO management did not ensure VSC staff associated drop mail with veterans' claim folders. Drop mail consists of all  veteran specific related documents or source materials in direct support of VBA's claims processing. Generally, drop mail requires no additional processing actions before being placed in the related claims folder or converted into the Veterans Benefits Management System (VBMS). We located an estimated 14,675 pieces of unprocessed drop mail in 37 boxes and bins. Our sample showed this mail was received between March 2011 and June 2014. We substantiated weaknesses in mail operations and concluded unassociated drop mail was a systemic issue within the VSC. (The VSC manager cited lack of resources as the reason the drop mail was not properly filed, but the manager was unaware that the drop mail was stored in the workspace designated for  the Veterans Claims Intake Program.)
  • We substantiated that VARO management did not ensure staff adequately protected veteran and employee documents containing personally identifiable information (PII). We found unprotected documents containing PII in an interior office of a kitchen. We were unable to determine who placed the documents in this space orr how long the documents had been there. This information included PII belonging to veterans and VARO employees and its improper storage may have compromised the personal information of some veterans and employees.
  • We received numerous complaints about working conditions at a geographically separated annexed worksite of the VARO. The site is best described as a warehouse, built in 1928, housing Federal, public and private employers. Approximately 150 VARO staff supporting two VBA call centers work at the site, where conditions included a lack of  bathrooms in the VARO workspace, reports of insect and vermin infestations and leaking roofs during inclement weather. Some staff said they had health problems related to the work environment and some raised concerns that new performance standards did not allow sufficient time to provide quality service to many callers, such as the elderly and hearing-impaired.

After completing its onsite review at the Philadelphia VARO on August 15, 2014, the Office of the Inspector General continued to receive additional allegations of wrongdoing from VARO staff, including a scheme to credit VARO staff for training they did not complete. The mail situation reportedly got worse since the onsite reviews and management allegedly continued to cover up these problems.

To read the entire VA report, go to www.va.gov/oig/pubs/VAOIG-14-03651-203.pdf