House Panel Hears Contradicting Testimony About Oakland VA Office
At a House committee hearing on Wednesday, a whistleblower from the Oakland Department of Veterans Affairs Regional office testified that thousands of veterans' claims had been ignored, the Washington Post's "Federal Eye" reports (Wax-Thibodeaux, "Federal Eye," Washington Post, 4/22).
The House Committee on Veterans' Affairs on Wednesday held a hearing to examine allegations of claims mismanagement at the Oakland VA office and a Philadelphia VA office.
In February, a VA Office of Inspector General audit found that the Oakland office stored thousands of informal claims -- some of which dated back to the mid-1990s -- in a filing cabinet without processing them.
The audit said that 13,184 claims were uncovered in 2012, of which 2,155 still required "review or action." A special team was assigned to review and process the files, but employees last spring found a cart of 537 claims that still had not been processed after they were reviewed.
During a two-week probe of the Oakland office in July 2014, VA OIG found that a spreadsheet for the 537 unprocessed claims had been made, but there was no paper trail for the larger group of claims. Therefore, VA OIG could not verify that all claims had been processed because of "management's poor record-keeping practices," according to the audit.
The audit recommended that the Oakland VA office:
- Develop a plan for oversight of workers who process informal claims;
- Implement more training on claims processing and evaluate the effectiveness of such training; and
- Process the 537 claims (California Healthline, 4/22).
Details of Hearing
During the hearing, Rustyann Brown -- the whistleblower and a former Oakland VA employee -- said that many claims submitted to the office were not viewed or processed until years after the veterans who had filed them had died.
Brown added that she and other workers were instructed by management to review the discovered claims and mark them as "no action necessary," essentially putting them aside for good (Emmons, San Jose Mercury News, 4/23).
She said, "Nothing was done to protect these claims," adding, "Nothing was done to put them in the system."
Regional Director Julianna Boor said that Brown's testimony was correct in most cases but added that the agency now is "headed in the right direction." She said that the office has:
- Hired 58 claims processors; and
- Streamlined its record-keeping process into a digital system.
Boor said that when the Oakland office discovered the more than 13,000 claims, it had to check them against electronic payments and paper records to figure out what they were, the San Francisco Chronicle reports.
She said the process "[a]dmittedly ... took too long," noting that the office was "inundated with paper" (Lochhead, San Francisco Chronicle, 4/22).
Oakland VA officials maintained that the claims were duplicates of already-processed claims and did not affect veteran care (San Jose Mercury News, 4/23).
However, Brent Arronte, an official at VA OIG, during the hearing contradicted testimony that the claims had been processed correctly.
Arronte said that while there was "no paper trail" to follow, an audit of about 60 claims found that many were "not duplicates" and "several required action."
Rep. Jerry McNerney (D-Calif.) said that "clearly there's a contradiction here" (San Francisco Chronicle, 4/22).
Meanwhile, Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-Calif.) said that he was concerned about the "conflicting" testimony (San Jose Mercury News, 4/23).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.