Are VA Benefits Processed More Efficiently? Congress Gets Conflicting Answers

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By Sandra Basu

WASHINGTON – The work of the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) was vehemently defended before lawmakers last month, with VA Under Secretary for Benefits Allison Hickey testifying that the agency had reduced the claims backlog from a high of more than 600,000 last year to 271,000 as of last month.

 VA Undersecretary for Benefits Allison Hickey testified that the agency had reduced the claims backlog from a high of more than 600,000 last year to 271,000 as of last month. VBA photo

VA Undersecretary for Benefits Allison Hickey testified that the agency had reduced the claims backlog from a high of more than 600,000 last year to 271,000 as of last month. VBA photo

At the same time, the accuracy of rating decisions continued to improve with VA’s national “claim-level” accuracy rate increasing from 83% in 2011 to currently 91%, Hickey emphasized.

“VBA takes seriously our commitment to provide timely, accurate benefits and maintain the integrity of our systems and processes,” she said.

Hickey testified at a hearing before the House Veterans’ Affairs committee, but her comments were met by skepticism by some lawmakers who questioned the integrity of VBA data. That skepticism was shared by VA’s Assistant Inspector General for Audits and Evaluations Linda Halliday, who also testified.

Halliday told lawmakers that her office has received several serious allegations regarding “mail mismanagement, manipulation of date of claims and other data integrity issues,” in the VA regional offices in Baltimore, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Oakland, Houston and more recently the Little Rock Veterans Affairs Regional Office (VARO). She said the IG’s office is concerned by how quickly the number of VAROs with allegations is growing.

When asked whether she trusted VBA’s data, she responded that she would say “no” at this point.

“I can’t trust those numbers. I think we have a lot of work ahead of us to address the allegations we have just received. They all seem to focus on data integrity,” Halliday said.

Numerous Allegations

Halliday said her team is looking into integrity issues including a discovery that VBA’s Pension Management Center staff in Philadelphia had inappropriately interpreted a VA letter to justify not recording the original date claim on some claims as they should have. Other discoveries at the Philadelphia VARO included instances where veterans or their dependents received duplicate payments resulting from duplicate records in VBA’s electronic system.

Halliday said the IG also has been looking into mail mismanagement. In June 2014, VBA reported to the OIG that a VARO employee in the Baltimore office had inappropriately stored approximately 8,000 documents and 80 claims folders in his office for an extensive period of time, she reported in written testimony.

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