VA took no ac­tion to process sur­vivor benefits

Claims dat­ing back to mid-1990s never ad­dressed

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics - BY DAVE BOYER

In a voice choked with emo­tion, Rustyann Brown told law­mak­ers Wed­nes­day how the Depart­ment of Vet­er­ans Af­fairs rou­tinely turned its back on vet­er­ans and their fam­i­lies, even in death.

Mrs. Brown, a for­mer em­ployee in the VA’s Oak­land of­fice, was as­signed one day in 2012 to a spe­cial team given the job of re­view­ing more than 13,000 vet­er­ans’ claims dat­ing back to the mid-1990s that had never been ad­dressed. As they sorted through the mounds of pa­pers, she said, they of­ten dis­cov­ered that the vet­er­ans had long since died with­out re­ceiv­ing the re­quested benefits.

In those cases, Mrs. Brown tes­ti­fied, VA man­agers in­structed em­ploy­ees to mark the files “NAN” — for “no ac­tion nec­es­sary.” But she said tak­ing that step also pre­vented a vet­eran’s sur­vivors from re­ceiv­ing benefits.

“If the widow ever came in to file a claim … there’s noth­ing there,” she told the House Com­mit­tee on Vet­er­ans’ Af­fairs, her voice break­ing. “There’s no in­for­ma­tion about her hus­band. On a daily ba­sis, we were see­ing piles of [claims] set aside. It was our obli­ga­tion to con­tact that fam­ily. We didn’t do that. We should have.”

A VA of­fi­cial from Oak­land as­sured law­mak­ers that the agency has since taken care of all the old claims, but Mrs. Brown called that “a lie.”

VA As­sis­tant In­spec­tor Gen­eral Linda Hal­l­i­day tes­ti­fied Wed­nes­day that as re­cently as last month, her of­fice dis­cov­ered an­other 1,300 old doc­u­ments in the Oak­land of­fice, in­clud­ing “claims that still re­quire ac­tion.”

“In some of th­ese cases, vet­er­ans’ benefits were af­fected,” she said.

The new tale of ne­glected vet­er­ans and their fam­i­lies emerged as VA whistle­blow­ers and a gov­ern­ment watch­dog told the House com­mit­tee Wed­nes­day that the agency is still wracked with em­ployee re­tal­i­a­tion and wide­spread foul-ups in de­liv­er­ing vet­er­ans’ benefits, long af­ter top VA of­fi­cials claimed prob­lems have been fixed.

Wit­nesses de­scribed men­tal abuse of VA work­ers and fal­si­fy­ing records to erase claims back­logs. One wit­ness even told law­mak­ers about a VA manager in Philadel­phia who al­legedly com­pelled sub­or­di­nates at a party to pay his wife $30 each to tell their for­tunes.

Ms. Hal­l­i­day, who is­sued a scathing re­port last week about prob­lems in the Philadel­phia of­fice, re­vealed Wed­nes­day that she has launched a new probe into “mis­use of po­si­tions by two se­nior lead­ers” in Philadel­phia — a ref­er­ence to the for­tune-telling in­ci­dent.

De­spite as­sur­ances from VA lead­ers that the prob­lems are be­ing ad­dressed, a whistle­blower said the agency can’t be re­formed un­less the man­agers re­spon­si­ble are fired.

“With­out re­mov­ing the of­fi­cials mak­ing the bad de­ci­sions, this is­sue will con­tinue to be a re­volv­ing door of tax­payer waste,” said Kristen Ruell, a qual­ity re­view spe­cial­ist at the Philadel­phia VA of­fice.

The hear­ing fo­cused on prob­lems with de­liv­er­ing vet­er­ans’ benefits and other ser­vices in Philadel­phia and Oak­land — two of the VA’s largest re­gional of­fices.

Rep. Ralph Abra­ham, Louisiana Repub­li­can, said the rev­e­la­tions made him “filled with anger.”

“How tragic is it in to­day’s VA sys­tem that the same vet­eran we trust our na­tional se­cu­rity to and even our lives to, that same vet­eran can’t trust our VA sys­tem to take care of them?” Mr. Abra­ham said. “What I’m hear­ing to­day is a mis­man­age­ment of lives from our VA sys­tem. It goes to the very core of what this na­tion is sup­posed to be about.”

But Al­li­son Hickey, VA un­der­sec­re­tary for benefits, said the agency’s prob­lems are not “sys­temic.” An­other VA of­fi­cial said many of the agency’s prob­lems stem from a years­long ef­fort to con­vert pa­per­work for mil­lions of vet­er­ans into dig­i­tal files.

“We’re try­ing to be more vet­eran-cen­tric,” said Danny Pum­mill, the VA’s prin­ci­pal deputy un­der­sec­re­tary for benefits. “A lot of this is way too much work with not enough peo­ple.”

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