The Philadelphia Veterans Affairs office should implement widespread policy changes, arrange new training, and hold managers and staffers accountable for altering records and mishandling claims, government investigators say.
After a nine-month probe, the VA's Office of Inspector General made 35 recommendations to address shoddy record-keeping, bungled claims, inadequate security, and poor working conditions at the Philadelphia office.
The Inquirer obtained a draft of its recommendations Tuesday. The document lists no names or details about the scope of the probe, nor does it say when the final report will be issued or how or when the VA is supposed to accomplish the changes. It also does not include the responses that the agency and its leaders have submitted to each recommendation.
A spokeswoman for the VA's Inspector General's Office could not be reached for comment late Tuesday. A representative of the Philadelphia office declined to discuss the recommendations. In a memo she sent Tuesday to local employees, its director, Diana Rubens, said many of the recommended changes were already in place or in progress.
They come after a nearly yearlong spotlight on veterans' services nationwide, including a prolonged focus on the agency's operations in Philadelphia.
Scrutiny at its Germantown facility - which 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 - began last June, when a whistle-blower's tip led to the discovery of dozens of mail bins brimming with claims dating back to 2011 and benefits that had been paid twice.
One pensioner, an 88-year-old woman from East Norriton whose husband had served in World War II, had been waiting for more than two years for her benefits. The VA had said her file was incomplete, but her family said it believed the office had lost the documents.
Other allegations also emerged: that mail had been shredded, that dates on claims were changed to hide a backlog, and that employees cherry-picked easy cases to meet unrealistic performance goals.
For months, congressional staff and VA auditors pulled documents, surveyed conditions, and listened to complaints from staff and veterans, some of whose cases had languished for years.
"It's important for VA to investigate what went wrong at the Philadelphia Regional Office and determine who is responsible so policies can be fixed and VA employees can be held accountable," Rep. Jeff Miller (R., Fla.), chairman of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, said in a statement Tuesday.
The draft report recommends that the undersecretary for veterans' benefits convene an administrative investigation board to look into one of the most damning allegations - whether managers deliberately misapplied a VA policy on dating claims in order to hide a backlog in veterans' claims.
Among the report's most concrete suggestions are that mail to the center be opened within six hours, appeals of claims decisions be entered in its system within seven days, and staff and supervisors receive refresher training on proper record-keeping.
Kristen Ruell, a seven-year employee of the VA and one of the most prominent whistle-blowers, said training and additional layers of review would not help because the people who oversaw the misconduct were still in charge.
"If you have people willing to alter dates on claims and overlook mail, I think there's something wrong with that person," Ruell said Tuesday. "I don't think training is going to help."
On a national level, the inspector general advises the Veterans Benefits Administration to give regional offices procedures and time lines to follow regarding backlogs, duplicate records, and destruction of some files. It also directs the federal office to "routinely provide VA Regional Office staff a listing of duplicate records and payment information" so that they can fix it in a timely fashion.
The report identified 53 "altered quality reviews" and 248 duplicate records at the Philadelphia office, which may require that the VA now attempt to recoup improper payments.
The report also addresses some of the employees' complaints about the physical office - including frigid conditions in the building, vermin, and leaking roofs - by recommending that the workplace "complies with VA Occupational Safety and Health Requirements."
Much of the confusion surrounding mishandled benefits stemmed from a 2013 VA memo that allowed claims to be relabeled not with the date the claim was filed, but with the date of discovery - making them look like new claims. The dating tool was supposed to be used in extreme cases and required an explanation and approval by a top administrator. A notice was supposed to then be sent to a higher office.
The June inspection found 30 claims that had been re-dated to look new. None included explanations, and no notices were sent to higher offices.
Philadelphia VA officials have said the dating changes resulted from a misunderstanding of the memo, but personnel from the Inspector General's Office and some Congress members have expressed doubt that the data manipulation was not an intentional strategy to hide delays. One, Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick, a Bucks County Republican, has called the troubles in the Philadelphia office the most glaring example "of the depth of corruption and mismanagement within wings of the VA."
Ryan Cease, an employee in the office's veterans service center, said Tuesday that managers there had been implementing changes in recent months. But asked about the investigation, he said one by an independent agency, like the FBI, would have been more credible than one by internal investigators.
Said Cease: "I don't trust it."