William H. McMichael, The News Journal 8:50 p.m. EDT October 3, 2014
PEMBERTON, NEW JERSEY – The problems continue at the Philadelphia Veterans Affairs benefits office despite scathing congressional testimony more than two months ago about mail and records manipulation, the woman who blew the whistle on the problems told members of the House VA committee Friday.
I “regret to tell you that things have not changed, and that accountability is greatly lacking for the management officials involved,” said Kristin Ruell, a quality services representative in the Pension Management Center at the Philadelphia Regional Office, which manages the Wilmington benefits office near Elsmere. “The practices of data manipulation have continued at the Philadelphia RO.”
“We do understand the … seriousness of the concerns about the operation in Philadelphia that have been raised,” responded Diana Rubens, regional office director since Aug. 26. “And I want to assure you, we share those concerns, and we’re quickly taking action to address those issues.”
The Veterans Benefits Administration, separate from VA’s medical side, processes disability compensation and pensions claims and provides other services.
The Wilmington office, dwarfed in size by the Philadelphia office it falls under, wasn’t mentioned during the hearing. Wilmington, however, has sent disability compensation claims to Philadelphia since at least fiscal year 2011 – the same year in which “boxes” of claims sent to Philadelphia were found unprocessed and piled up, said Ruell, who first described the problem on Capitol Hill on July 14.
That means some of the Wilmington cases – at least 10 disability compensation claims from fiscal years 2011 and 2012 and about 300 pending appeals in fiscal 2013 – could be in that same sort of limbo, Ruell said.
“Any case that comes in our building, I notice the same issues, regardless of where it’s from,” Ruell said in an interview following the field hearing, held at the campus of Burlington County College in Pemberton, New Jersey, an area rich with vets served by the Philadelphia office.
“I see problems across the board,” said Ruell, who began working for VA in August 2007. “These issues happen because employees are rushed, and they’re forced to meet a production standard at the end of the day. So sometimes, it’s not about going the extra mile for the veteran, because they won’t have a job if they fail their standards.”
The claims traveled in the opposite direction as well; 512 cases were “brokered” from Philadelphia to Wilmington in fiscal year 2013. The transfers to and fro, which became a major issue in 2013 when VA started getting roundly criticized for its large claims backlog, did not go unnoticed by disability compensation claims workers.
“It seems like it was kind of like a shell game, where they’re just shifting these cases from Philly to Delaware – and then saying, look, we’re making progress,” said Christian Dejohn, a claims handler in Philadelphia’s Veterans Service Center. “We think that a lot of people in the Philly office are aware that was going on. Of course, we were very disappointed.”
“It’s shuffling,” said Ryan Cease, like DeJohn an Army vet and a veterans service representative in the service center’s appeals department who, along with DeJohn, has cooperated with congressional investigators. “It’s basically shuffling.”
The hearing, before Reps. Jon Runyan, R-New Jersey, and Dina Titus, D-Nevada, was to hear “additional concerns” beyond those raised last summer, when Ruell told the full committee she been made aware of improper shredding of military mail, data manipulation and beneficiaries receiving improper benefits payments – and has been subjected to four years of retaliatory harassment as a result.
The data manipulation issue stemmed from a directive, since rescinded, that, misapplied, allowed staffers to give unadjudicated claims a more current data – a “discovered date.”
“A memo was used to minimize the average dates pending of the claim to make the regional office’s number look better,” Ruell told the committee in July.
VA’s inspector general substantiated those concerns during an unannounced visit in June. Its investigation continues, said Linda Halliday, the IG’s assistant inspector general for audits and evaluations.
Runyan expressed particular concern over the IG’s identification of several instances of duplicative pension payments – the result of duplicate records in the center’s electronic system. “If neither workload management nor fiscal stewardship are priorities, what do you see as the priority there?” he asked Halliday.
“I believe what is driving this is to meet production metrics at the expense of making the right decisions and processing the veteran’s claim according to how it should be processed,” Halliday replied.
In other words, DeJohn and Cease said and as Ruell indicated, production goals processors are expected to meet.
“The point system is a real problem,” DeJohn said. “The VA point system.”
“The point system basically evaluates your productivity,” Cease said. “It also covers your accuracy. So for a person to say you have a productive day based on how many points you did per day, a lot of people would cherry-pick and say, well, I’m going to pick the easy work, put aside the hard work, and just gain points.”
An “easy” claim, he said, would be one with fewer individual medical conditions.
DeJohn said he was fired in 2012 for “alleged low numbers,” winning his job back after 1½ years.
The system, the two claims workers said, remains in place – as do the repercussions felt by those speaking out. This, in spite of new VA Secretary Robert McDonald’s promise to protect them.
DeJohn said he’s received death threats. Ruell has felt more subtle retaliation.
“They’re very creative in the things that they do to employees,” she said after the hearing. “They make it look like it’s a legitimate, legal thing, but … I never feel like I’m wanted in that building. I’ve never felt appreciated for anything I’ve brought forward. I basically show up because people rely on me to do the right thing and help report things.
“That’s why I come back,” she said. “I would never choose this job again, if it wasn’t for helping veterans.”
IG spokeswoman Cathy Gromek said to look for the IG’s final report on the Philadelphia regional office in late November or early December.
Contact William H. McMichael at (302) 324-2812 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @billmcmichael