More than 30,000 inquiries sent to Philadelphia's Veterans Affairs benefits office were left to languish, on average for almost a year, according to an internal investigation.
That finding was one of several outlined in a searing report released Wednesday by the VA's Inspector General. During their 10-month probe, investigators also confirmed data manipulation, poor working conditions and shoddy-record keeping.
"We substantiated serious issues involving mismanagement and distrust of [office] management impeding the effectiveness of its operation and services to veterans," the report's authors concluded in the 78-page report.Among the findings:
- About 31,000 inquiries sat unanswered for an average of 312 days. VA policy dictates a response within five days.
- A quality-control employee charged with reviewing claim forms for accuracy found multiple errors. But instead of highlighting the mistakes made by coworkers, the staffer doctored the claims to fix the errors in 60 percent of forms reviewed by investigators. The employee only removed errors in claims completed by some coworkers, but not others. Managers were aware the reviews were being altered, but took no action to stop the employee.
- A worker hid four bins of unprocessed mail. The report does not indicate why the mail was hidden but says the case was referred to criminal investigators from the inspector general's office. The case was ultimately closed because no mail was destroyed, the employee no longer worked for the VA and office managers had implemented a plan to process the old mail.
-Duplicate records meant some veterans were paid twice for the same claim. Investigators found that the office paid out about $2.2 million in unnecessary benefits. Whistleblowers first had raised this concern several years ago, but investigators found the office did not have an efficient process for identifying duplicate cases and fixing the problem.
-Documents containing personal information of veterans and office staff were improperly stored, including some left in an office connected to a shared kitchen.
The Germantown office, which oversees benefits for 825,000 veterans in eastern Pennsylvania, South Jersey and Delaware, came under investigation in June following allegations of misconduct including that employees had changed dates on old benefits claims in an attempt to mask a backlog.
The report was initially expected last fall but was delayed as employees continued to bring new complaints to investigators.
After an official from the inspector general last month told a Congressional panel that the alleged problems were among the worst he had seen, VA officials said the office has already taken steps to address nearly all the deficiencies.
But that assurance, and the release of the report, is unlikely to end the scrutiny. A congressional committee has scheduled a hearing next week to continue probing concerns at the facility.
Some of the allegations that sparked the probe were not substantiated by the team from the Inspector General's Office, including one that office management attempted to conceal two pallets of potentially old claims ahead of a visit by congressional staffers.
VA officials have said dates on veterans' claims were not deliberately changed in order to hide the facility's backlog, one of the allegations that sparked the investigation.
But in the report, the inspector general recommended the VA launch a deeper investigation into the matter. The VA said that probe is underway.
In a statement Wednesday, Rep. Patrick Meehan, (R., Pa.) said the report "confirmed our worst fear: that the Philadelphia VA Regional Office is rife with systemic mismanagement deliberate manipulation of data and individuals more focused on misleading the nation than serving our veterans."
Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick, (R., Pa.) said "no amount of whistleblower testimony or veteran horror stories could fully encompass the depth of corruption, mismanagement and inefficiency we see in today's OIG report."
"It is my hope that this extensive report begins to hold the Philadelphia VARO accountable for its shortcomings and provides a roadmap for long overdue corrections to a culture of failure and impropriety," he said in a statement.