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VA reports mishandled records at Baltimore office

An employee at the Baltimore office of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs inappropriately stored thousands of documents — including some that contained Social Security data — according to testimony from an inspector general to be made public on Monday.

About 8,000 documents, including claims folders, unprocessed mail and Social Security information of dead or incarcerated veterans were stored in an employee's office for "an extensive period of time," according to testimony from Linda A. Halliday, an assistant inspector general, that was reviewed by The Baltimore Sun.

The incident is one of several examples included in a scathing assessment of the department that Halliday will offer in a hearing Monday before the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs. It also represents the latest problem for the Baltimore office, which has been among the nation's worst in processing veteran claims.

The VA has wrestled for years with a backlog of claims — 550,000 cases as of the end of June — even before a separate scandal involving the VA medical system forced Eric Shinseki to step down as the department's secretary in May.

Auditors will share concerns on Monday about how officials are managing delayed claims as they attempt to whittle down that backlog.

The Veterans Benefit Administration, which is part of the VA, "continues to have notable weaknesses in financial stewardship," according to Halliday's prepared remarks.

Halliday will tell lawmakers that agency officials alerted the inspector general in June that an employee in the Baltimore office incorrectly stored claims-related mail, printouts of Social Security data and "various documents containing personally-identifiable information." A subsequent review ordered by management found an additional 1,500 sensitive documents inappropriately stored, she will say.

Halliday's testimony draws no conclusion about whether the documents were misused, nor does she name the employee.

"In order to ensure it doesn't happen again, Baltimore … leaders must take swift and decisive action to hold all responsible employees accountable," Rep. Jeff Miller, a Florida Republican and the chairman of the House veterans committee, said in a statement.

"If not," he said, "it is downright illogical to think similar incidents will not occur in the future."

Ramona E. Joyce, a VA spokeswoman, confirmed that managers in the Baltimore office alerted the Office of Inspector General that "an employee was inappropriately storing claims-related information in his office." Joyce said the employee was removed from his current position and that officials restricted his access to computers and claims information.

Department officials also named Antoine Waller to head the Baltimore office, Joyce said in a statement. Waller, previously Baltimore's acting director, was the manager who called attention to the document storage issue in the first place, Joyce said.

The agency "takes seriously the OIG's findings and recommendations, as well as issues raised by whistleblowers who identify cases in which employees may have taken inappropriate action," Joyce said in a statement. It "works diligently to implement OIG recommendations, and will hold employees accountable if they have intentionally misused policies."

Dan Caldwell, issues and legislative campaign manager for Concerned Veterans for America, said he is concerned about the possibility of identity theft since some of the documents belonged to veterans who had died or who are in prison.

"Nothing at the VA really shocks me anymore," said Caldwell when told of Halliday's testimony. "The VA for a long time has had an issue with protecting the personal data of veterans."

VA medical centers have been criticized by veterans groups and Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown for using Social Security numbers on patient wristbands and clothing bags.

The VA benefits office in Baltimore, which is separate from the VA Maryland Health Care System, has also been faulted for its claims processing in the past. A series of articles in The Baltimore Sun last year showed that the office had one of the longest backlogs in the nation for processing disability claims.

Maryland is home to 450,000 veterans.

Separately, the department came under fire this year after revelations of long waits for medical care and allegations that staff at some facilities falsified records to hide those delays. Eighteen veterans at a VA facility in Phoenix, Ariz., died while waiting to be seen.

The Maryland health system performed poorly on one of those measures: the time it takes for a new veteran to schedule an appointment with a primary care doctor. Data released earlier this year showed the average wait time was 80 days, making the state's system the fourth-worst out of 141 systems nationwide.

Last month, President Barack Obama nominated Robert McDonald, the former president and CEO of Procter & Gamble, to replace Shinseki as the head of the department.

The Veterans Benefits Administration will pay out $73 billion to veterans and their beneficiaries nationwide this year, including pension, education and compensation benefits.

While the agency has made progress on the claims backlog, the inspector general is expected to raise concerns about new procedures. Last spring the agency created an initiative to process claims pending for more than two years. Auditors found that the new procedure is less effective than the agency's existing process for providing benefits quickly, according to Halliday.

Department officials applied "provisional ratings" to 7,800 claims and no longer counted them as part of the backlog, even though veterans involved were still waiting for final decisions. Those cases represented about 12 percent of claims over two years old.

"VBA's process misrepresented the actual workload of pending claims and its progress toward eliminating the overall claims backlog," according to Halliday's testimony.

In another instance, the inspector general estimates the agency spent $85 million in improper payments since January 2012 because the claims involved lacked adequate medical evidence to justify categorizing the veterans as totally disabled.

john.fritze@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jfritze

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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