Two parallel probes into mismanagement and other problems at the Philadelphia VA benefits office have expanded because of a continuing stream of allegations from employees, according to a source familiar with the reviews.
The results of an investigation by the VA's Office of Inspector General that had been anticipated last fall is now not expected until late February. And a team of congressional staff members that arrived at the office in mid-December for a two-day visit ended up staying for a full week to catalog complaints from employees.
"Once at the [regional office] in a private conference room," the source said, "the onslaught of employees who wanted to share concerns regarding mismanagement prompted our staff to extend the length of the visit."
The investigation of the regional office is now in its sixth month.
The Germantown facility oversees benefits for 825,000 veterans in eastern Pennsylvania, South Jersey, and Delaware, and also houses one of the nation's three Veterans Affairs pension centers. Whistleblowers have alleged, among other concerns, that mail at the center has been shredded, dates on claims have been changed to hide the backlog, and employees have cherry-picked easy cases to meet unrealistic performance goals.
The inspector general's review is part of a sweeping assessment of the national VA system.
The Philadelphia VA Medical Center in University City and a clinic it runs in Horsham are also being investigated by the inspector general. But in Philadelphia, the brunt of the scrutiny has fallen on the benefits office.
Officials there have denied that claim dates were changed to mask the backlog, saying the problems stemmed from a misunderstanding of VA policy.
At an October congressional hearing, an official from the Inspector General's Office said she found that "difficult to grasp." At the time, she said the review of the office included more than 100 individual allegations.
Inspector general's spokeswoman Catherine Gromek declined Wednesday to say where that number now stood.
But, she said, the volume of "issues that have been continually raised" has kept the office from issuing a report. She said the inspector general hoped to present a draft to VA officials, as is customary, in early January. The final version could come in late February.
Gromek declined to discuss the investigation in detail.
One VA employee, who asked to not be named because she feared retaliation at work, said she was interviewed Dec. 10 by inspector general's staff about undated claims she occasionally found in the system, meaning they were not being processed and tracked.
The employee, who has worked for the VA for six years, said that she did not know why it was occurring, but that it "looks like we have less claims than what we have."
The congressional staffer, who is allowed to discuss the probe but did not use his name, said the Inspector General's Office did not expect to be able to respond to each complaint individually, as there were too many. The final report will group concerns into categories.
That staff member said the congressional team that visited the office from Dec. 15 to 19 - what was to be a routine two-day visit on other business - also saw the breadth of concerns being raised by employees. They included mismanagement, retaliation, waste of government resources, and lack of accountability for certain managers, he said.
A spokeswoman from the benefits office said Wednesday that administrators took swift action to correct problems when they were first raised last summer.
As the review continues, the delay is affecting morale, said Kristen Ruell, an employee at the office, who has testified before Congress about her concerns. She said some employees who had made complaints were discouraged there had not been more change.
"The employees think the investigation was a big joke," she said. "They think it was a big waste of time."
Another employee, who asked that his name not be used because he was looking to leave his job, said he was hopeful that the delay meant the investigators were "trying to have all their ducks in a row and have a thorough investigation."