VA memo en­cour­aged false health care claims ‘Fast Let­ter 13-10’ cov­ered up back­log

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - BY DAVE BOYER

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.

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