VA memo encouraged false health care claims ‘Fast Letter 13-10’ covered up backlog
Another veterans scandal hit the Obama administration Wednesday with the emergence of an internal Veterans Affairs memo that allowed bureaucrats to cook their books and assert they were answering diligently President Obama’s call to reduce the backlog of veterans’ benefits claims.
The memo was known inside the VA as “Fast Letter 13-10,” and a government watchdog said Wednesday this “flawed” guidance from VA headquarters in Washington deliberately resulted in making the agency appear it was delivering services and benefits to veterans faster than it really was.
The VA inspector general examined the impact of the memo, issued in May 2013, on the Philadelphia VA office — one of the largest in the nation, serving more than 825,000 veterans and their families in three states. Investigators found that VA managers, using “Fast Letter 13-10” as their justification, ordered workers to put the current date on benefits claims that were sometimes more than a year old, thereby “eliminating” part of the highly publicized backlog with the stroke of a pen or time stamp.
The inspector general said it was just the sort of fiction that VA headquarters sought.
“By design, the guidance contained in Fast Letter 13-10 was flawed, as it required [Philadelphia] staff to adjust the dates of claims for unadjudicated claims found in claims folder to reflect a current date,” the report said. “As such, the reliability of all performance measures related to [agency] timeliness measures for processing claims becomes unreliable.”
An official with a major veterans group said the revelations in Philadelphia are likely to expose the VA’s disability and pension benefits system to the same level of mismanagement and outright fraud as the scandal that erupted in Phoenix last year over phony waiting lists for patients in the VA health care system.
“This has very serious parallels to the VA waitlist scandal at VA hospitals across the country,” said Dan Caldwell of Concerned Veterans for America. “This is almost an identical scam, except with the disability backlog. We do not believe that behaviors like this are just going to be confined to the Philadelphia VA.”
House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Jeff Miller, Florida Republican, said the report “is as bleak as it gets, full of systemic malfeasance and deliberate data manipulation.”
His committee will hold a hearing next week on failures in the Veterans Benefits Administration’s Philadelphia and Oakland regional offices and the “massive, unexplained” $288,000 relocation bonus paid to Philadelphia VA Director Diana Rubens.
Reducing the backlog of veterans benefits claims has been one of Mr. Obama’s oft-stated priorities, dating back to his campaign for president in 2008.
At the end of 2008, there were about 389,000 pending pension and compensation claims. But claims shot up as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan ended, and other veterans became eligible for benefits due to complications from Agent Orange. In 2011 alone, 1.4 million claims were submitted.
The VA says it has reduced the number of pending disability and pension claims from about 883,000 in July 2012 to about 457,000 as of this week. The president has pledged to eliminate the backlog by sometime this year.
But the IG’s new report is calling the VA’s math into question, and Fast Letter 13-10 may have played a central role.
Sent to all VA benefits regional offices on May 20, 2013, the memo’s subject line was “Guidance on Date of Claim Issues.” It was signed by David McLenachen, director of pension and fiduciary service, and Thomas Murphy, director of compensation service.
“This fast letter provides guidance for establishing dates of claim, including guidance for previously unadjudicated claims that are found or ‘discovered’ in the claims folder,” the letter stated.
The three-page memo advised: “Use the date a previously unadjudicated claim is discovered as the date of claim for system control purposes.” It said if benefits are granted, workers should use the date that the claim actually arrived at the VA for calculating benefits.