Whistle-blower says VA employees changed dates on disability claims

WASHINGTON - Some employees of the Department of Veterans Affairs altered records to make it appear that veterans were receiving disability checks faster than they actually were, a key whistle-blower told Congress on Monday night.

The allegations come after investigators found some VA employees had cooked the books on wait times for medical visits.

Kristen Ruell, an employee at the VA's Pension Management Center in Philadelphia, told the House Veterans Affairs Committee that mail routinely "sat in boxes untouched for years" at the pension office. Once, after becoming concerned that unopened mail was being shredded, Ruell opened the boxes and took photos. Instead of addressing the problem, she said, VA supervisors enacted a policy prohibiting taking photos.

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Kristen Ruell testifies before the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday, July 14, 2014.
Cliff Owen, AP

After VA officials in Washington issued a directive last year ordering that a backlog of claims older than 125 days be reduced, the Philadelphia office "took this to mean that they could change the dates of every claim older than six weeks," Ruell said.

While pension center managers later told the IG's office that the mislabeling was based on a misunderstanding of the directive, Ruell said, "These behaviors are intentional."

The incorrect dates "are used to minimize the average days pending of a claim to make the regional office's numbers look better," she said. For instance, claims that should have been dated 2009 were dated 2014, "therefore making the claim appear 'new,' " she said.

"The VA's problems are a result of morally bankrupt managers that through time and (government service) grade have moved up into powerful positions where they have the power to and continue to ruin people's lives," Ruell said.

Before her testimony, Ruell told CBS News correspondent Wyatt Andrews that thousands of vets who may have waited years for a disability decision are reported in the system to have waited weeks.

"It didn't matter in our office how old the claim was. They didn't want any claims older than a certain date, so they would put a memo on the claims, so that the claims looked new," she said.

"I can say for sure there's thousands (of date changes) that were done in my office," Ruell said.

Ruell told Andrews the date changes hurt veterans who have waited the longest, because the oldest claims are supposed to handled first.

"Some of the veterans have died waiting for their claim to be processed, and if it has a newer date of claim it's not a priority," she said.

The VA's Office of Inspector General has confirmed Ruell's allegation, saying the practice of date changing "makes the average (number of) days claims have been pending appear better than it would be."

VA headquarters has begun a national investigation to learn whether disability wait times are being falsely reported nationwide.

At Monday's hearing, the VA claimed "tremendous progress" has been made in reducing a disability claims backlog that reached about 611,000 in March 2013. The backlog is now about 275,000 - a 55 percent decrease from the peak, said Allison Hickey, undersecretary for benefits at the VA.

Last year, the Veterans Benefits Administration completed a record 1.2 million disability rating claims, Hickey said, and the agency is on track to complete more than 1.3 million rating claims this year. More than 90 percent of the claims are being processed electronically, she said.

The VA has long struggled to cope with disability claims. The backlog had intensified in recent years as more solders returned from Iraq and Afghanistan, and as the VA made it easier for Vietnam-era veterans to get disability compensation stemming from exposure to Agent Orange.

The VA has set a goal to process all claims within 125 days at 98 percent accuracy in 2015, but so far has fallen far short. The agency now processes most claims within 154 days at a 90-percent accuracy rate, compared with an accuracy rate of 86 percent three years ago, Hickey said. At one point, veterans were forced to wait an average nine to 10 months for their disability claims to be processed.

"It has never been acceptable to VA ... that our veterans are experiencing long delays in receiving the benefits they have earned and deserve," Hickey said. She said the department has spent the past four years redesigning and streamlining the way it delivers benefits and services.

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