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A surprise inspection of the Little Rock veterans benefits center revealed staff members were marking overlooked claims -- many almost 2 years old -- to make them appear as if they had just been filed.

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Audit of Little Rock veterans benefits center

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The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Office of Inspector General reported that the practice threatened to further delay benefits to Arkansas veterans, although it was unclear whether any claims were delayed because the Little Rock office implemented its own protocol to track them.

After allegations arose that the VA's Regional Benefit Office in Little Rock was manipulating records, inspectors auditing the office found 48 instances in which old claims had been marked with the dates that they were "discovered" and not the dates they were originally submitted.

However, inspectors said the local office wasn't mismarking the claims. Instead, they found fault with a Veterans Benefits Administration rule that instructed offices nationwide to use the more recent dates.

"We followed guidance as directed," said Lisa Bruen, director of the Little Rock office.

The Little Rock location is one of the Veterans Benefits Administration's 56 regional offices nationwide that determine entitlement to disability compensation for service-related injuries or illnesses and other benefits. It oversees the administration of benefits to the approximately 249,000 veterans in Arkansas, according to the National Center for Veterans Analyses and Statistics. The office authorizes a total $67,651,765 in payments to veterans each month, office spokesman Kim Godeaux said.

Inspectors interviewed managers and staff members in Little Rock on July 28, after someone anonymously reported to the inspector general's office that staff members were inappropriately adjusting the dates of claims. The person making the allegation said the dates were adjusted to "give the appearance" that the Little Rock office "was making more progress than it actually had in eliminating its backlog of disability claims," according to a report published Thursday.

The report, which detailed the inspection, was the first official documentation showing that veterans in Arkansas were experiencing delays in receiving benefits similar to the delays affecting veterans nationwide.

"For almost a year, the American people have witnessed a disturbing pattern of negligent behavior throughout the entire VA," said Rep. French Hill, R-Ark., in a statement issued Friday. "Yesterday's report confirms that the Little Rock Regional Office is not immune to the systemic and reckless conduct of some VA employees.

"I am committed to working with my colleagues in Congress and the Arkansas Delegation to ensure that VA leadership does right by our Nation's heroes by utilizing every resource and authority they have to ensure this disservice to our veterans is stopped once and for all."

Because most offices -- including Little Rock's -- complete older claims first, the Office of Inspector General's report states that changing the dates "resulted in a lack of assurance that staff would expedite processing" of these claims, "further delaying decisions for veterans."

From May 22, 2013, to June 20, 2014, dates had been adjusted on 48 cases in Little Rock. Forty-three of the claims were related to veterans seeking compensation for disabilities they contend were a result of their military service.

According to the report, those 43 claims were marked with a date that was an average of one year, 8 months more recent than it was originally submitted. One claim was 20 years old, but the date had been marked to make it appear only 2 weeks old, the report states.

The other five claims dealt with nondisability compensation, such as monthly allowances for veterans' dependents. An average of five years, 9 months had elapsed from the time those claims were received and the date they were stamped with, according to the report. One claim was 16 years old and marked to seem 6 days old.

The 48 claims were overlooked because they were lost or because a claim was only partially adjudicated, Bruen said.

"It does happen. We only had 48 of those, and we have about 6,000 cases pending right now," she said. "On occasion, an issue might be missed."

Bruen said all of the 48 claims now have been resolved, and the office ceased marking claims with the dates they were "discovered" in June after the Veterans Benefits Administration suspended the practice. Even while staff members were marking the claims with the newer dates, they had -- of their own accord -- created a spreadsheet of those claims to make sure they went through the system quickly, Bruen said.

The report states that staff knew the procedure was "not in the best interest of veterans or claimants as it could delay claims processing," and that staff members kept the spreadsheet "because it was the right thing to do."

"We did track them," Bruen said. "We didn't want to consider these as newer claims. We wanted to make sure they got worked as the old cases they were."

Instruction to mark claims with the date they were discovered first came up in a memo distributed to offices nationwide in May 2013 -- after the Veterans Benefits Administration developed a strategic plan to eliminate its large backlog of claims.

It was disclosed that year that a large number of claims nationwide were stuck in processing for more than 125 days. Then-VA Secretary Eric Shinseki set a goal to have zero backlogged cases by the end of 2015.

The VA's most recent report shows there were 224,535 backlogged claims as of Feb. 21 -- down from a peak of 611,000 in March 2013.

At a mandated town-hall meeting with veterans in August, Bruen said the Little Rock office had a backlog of about 5,800 claims, which was down from a peak of 8,700 in April 2012.

The purpose of the memo was to guide the regional offices on how to date overlooked claims that had been "discovered."

In June, the inspector general's office asked the benefits administration to suspend guidelines in the memo after they were found to be misused at the Philadelphia benefits center. Those inspecting the Philadelphia office found staff members had incorrectly used the memo to manipulate dates to make it look as if the office was no longer backlogged.

Linda Halliday, an assistant inspector general, testified before the U.S. House Committee on Veterans' Affairs on July 14 that the memo "provided significant opportunities" for offices "to manipulate and input incorrect dates of claims in the electronic record."

The report published Thursday states that the Veterans Benefits Administration suspended its use of the date change on June 27, but it was not fully terminated until Jan. 22. The report, signed by Halliday, states that inspectors "remain concerned" that a loophole still exists. Going forward, the inspector general's office recommends that the 56 regional offices adopt a "permanent, universal" policy for how they date claims.

The report also stated inspectors would follow up to see that their recommendation is put into effect.

Col. Mike Ross, a former commander of the Arkansas National Guard's 39th Infantry Brigade, has advocated for Arkansas veterans since his retirement.

Ross attended the Little Rock office's town-hall meeting in August, at which about 100 veterans gathered to talk about their problems going through the claims process. Danny Carter, a 69-year-old Vietnam War veteran, told Bruen at the meeting that he had been working since 1988 to settle a claim involving Agent Orange, a defoliant U.S. forces sprayed on Vietnamese jungles.

Another veteran, who suffered a spinal injury during Operation Desert Storm, said she was having trouble with receiving compensation to make her home accessible. An Iraq War veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder said his claim had been processing for more than three years.

"I'm glad someone finally did an investigation into them," Ross said. "There's so much wrong over there, and it's so broke. These are my veterans they're supposed to be taking care of."

Metro on 02/28/2015

Print Headline: VA report: 48 claims' dates in LR altered

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