The mishandling of thousands of documents at the Baltimore office of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs delayed payments in excess of $25,000 to some veterans, according to new details made public Monday by the department's inspector general.
Agency auditors reported widespread problems with records management in Baltimore in a three-page memo released in advance of a congressional hearing Monday evening.
In one incident, they said, an employee was seen last month carrying veterans' claims folders in suitcases back to the office from her home.
In another, about 8,000 documents — including claims folders, unprocessed mail and Social Security information of dead or incarcerated veterans — were stored in a supervisor's office for "an extensive period of time."
The revelations led members of Maryland's delegation to call for immediate action. Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Southern Maryland asked VA officials to brief the state's lawmakers on the issue.
"I am concerned that the current culture in the Baltimore office may have contributed to this occurring in the first place," Hoyer, the No. 2 Democrat in the House, wrote to the VA's acting secretary, Sloan Gibson.
The first case of mishandled records, which was reported by The Baltimore Sun on Monday, led to a subsequent internal review during which auditors found another 1,500 documents containing personally identifiable information that were inappropriately stored on employee desks.
Auditors found "a number" of the claims stored in the office involved retroactive benefits in excess of $25,000 per veteran that had gone unpaid. They did not say how many of the state's 450,000 veterans were affected.
The Baltimore office came under scrutiny last year for ranking among the slowest in the nation in processing disability claims. The VA nationally has wrestled for years with a claims backlog that stood at 550,000 cases at the end of June.
Agency officials say they have taken steps to address the problems in Baltimore, including a change in leadership, additional training and a systemwide internal audit of documents. The agency doesn't expect to be able to asses the full impact of the mismanagement of the records until December.
Allison A. Hickey, the VA's undersecretary for benefits, said the agency agreed with the inspector general's findings and officials are working to implement the recommendations.
"Action is already underway to properly control the approximately 9,500 documents and 80 claims folders," she wrote in the agency's formal response to the memo.
The inspector general's office dispatched a team of inspectors to Baltimore in late June, according to the memo. Managers told inspectors they visited the office of the supervisor who was accused of storing 8,000 documents improperly and conceded the disorganization, but attributed some of it to his recent transfer from another office.
"Based on the volume of claims-related documents stored in the office, management should have viewed this stockpiling as a concern much earlier," the inspector general wrote.
The auditors do not name the supervisor and make no allegations of malfeasance. The VA said Sunday that the employee has been removed from that position and his access to computers and claims information has been restricted.
While inspectors were visiting the office, they said, they observed another employee using "approximately five large locking suitcases" to transport claims folders to the office from her home, from which she was teleworking.
Investigators didn't fault the office for allowing employees to take documents home but did say managers needed to better track those instances.
While the agency has made progress on its years-old claims backlog, a panel of VA employees told the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs on Monday that the agency was "cooking the books" to make that improvement appear to be better than it is.
Veterans groups have long questioned steps the VA has taken to deal with the backlog. Paul Rieckhoff, founder and CEO of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, noted the Baltimore case as well as similar findings in the Philadelphia office.
"Once again veterans learn they cannot trust the VA's numbers," Rieckhoff said in a statement. "As more terrible news breaks out of Philadelphia and Baltimore, its clear the VA scandal is far from over."
The Veterans Benefits Administration will pay out $73 billion in pension, compensation and other benefits to veterans and their beneficiaries nationwide this year.
Questions about the Veterans Benefits Administration are separate from the scandal that developed this year over delays in care for veterans at some medical facilities. The outcry led Eric Shinseki to step down as the department's secretary.
Last month, President Barack Obama nominated Robert McDonald, the former president and CEO of Procter & Gamble, to replace Shinseki.
Sen. Ben Cardin decried the problems in the Baltimore office and said he would attempt to amend upcoming legislation in Congress to require that veterans receive a decision within 180 days of filing a claim.
The Maryland Democrat described the situation as "one more example of betrayed trust" and said it is time "to guarantee an end to gross mismanagement of the VA disability claims process."
twitter.com/jfritzeCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun