Veterans

Philly case file mistakes are latest troubles for VA

It's a different week but the same set of frustrated questions and criticism for Veterans Affairs Department leaders.

The latest mini-scandal for the embattled department has focused on problems at its Philadelphia regional office, where the VA inspector general found evidence of misplaced mail, lackluster customer service and poor leadership.

Investigators found that at least 31,000 inquiries to the office were ignored for months, despite internal policies mandating responses within a week. They also observed more than 16,000 paper documents that should have been scanned into veterans' digital benefits files instead sitting ignored in boxes.

In a report released April 15, investigators said the findings show an "immediate need to improve the operation and management" of procedures throughout the facility.

But just days after the yearlong investigation was released, VA leaders said it will take at least two more months to determine whether any employees will face punishment for wrongdoing there.

The report did not name individuals to be disciplined for the failures, and VA Undersecretary for Benefits Allison Hickey told reporters April 20 that an internal review looking at possible reprimands or retraining will not wrap up until the end of June.

"If we see things that require accountability actions, if we find any intent to do things that show a lack of integrity, then I'm not afraid to take appropriate accountability action," Hickey said.

She said VA leaders wanted to begin that work earlier, but were asked by the inspector general's office not to move ahead until its review of the Philadelphia system's problems was complete.

That reasoning did little to calm congressional outrage over what many lawmakers see as a lack of accountability throughout the department.

At an April 22 hearing, members of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee criticized the lack of firings for problems in Philadelphia and dozens of other similar cases, noting that they've heard more anecdotes of whistleblowers being dismissed than of misbehaving supervisors being punished.

"Merely requiring staff to attend training sessions is not enough, and shuffling poor performing managers to other stations … is simply the old VA way of papering over problems," said committee chairman Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla.

The IG report said many employees at the Philadelphia office have "a serious mistrust of management, as staff told us that they felt they were not treated fairly or with respect." Several testified before lawmakers at the hearing to echo that frustration.

"I've had people ask me, 'Why would I ever report anything? You're just setting yourself up for failure,' " said Kristen Ruell, a review specialist-turned-whistleblower from the office.

VA officials repeatedly have pledged disciplinary action for problem employees and protection for whistleblowers, but lawmakers said those promises so far have fallen short.

The committee hearing was its fourth in about three weeks on failed oversight and accountability issues within VA, and doesn't include several budget briefings before other congressional panels in which VA officials have faced tough questioning from lawmakers. More of each are scheduled in the weeks to come.

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