A senior official of the American Legion, working with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to reduce its disability claims backlog, told Congress her organization had encountered an "obstructionist attitude" in the VA's underperforming Baltimore office.
Verna Jones, director of the Legion's Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation Division, told a House subcommittee this week that VA officials in Baltimore were "aggressively excluding" Maryland servicemen and -women from a program that was designed to fast-track their claims.
Michael Scheibel, director of the beleaguered Baltimore regional office, acknowledged Thursday that claims for five veterans had been tossed out of the VA's Fully Developed Claims program. But he said their case files were missing necessary documents, the veteran had refused to cooperate, or there was an administrative issue.
The Baltimore office is among the slowest in the nation at processing claims, and has the highest error rate, according to VA data. It takes the Baltimore office six months on average to process a fully developed claim; the national average is four months.
The American Legion, which works with former service members to assemble the often complex paperwork required under the expedited program, chose Baltimore for a site visit and performance review in March.
Jones described the organization's findings in testimony before the House Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs.
She cited the case of a veteran who was seeking benefits for post-traumatic stress disorder after serving in the Pentagon at the time of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Jones said the Baltimore office spent more time trying to exclude the veteran from the program than it would have taken to settle the claim.
The veteran helped pull people out of the Pentagon after the attack, Jones said. Although he received a citation for his service that day, she said, the VA claimed "there's no way to prove [he was] actually at work that day."
"With an obstructionist attitude towards veterans' claims like that, no program in the world is going to help right the ship," Jones testified.
Jones told the House subcommittee that the local office was "aggressively" tossing Maryland veterans' claims from the expedited program.
Scheibel said only five of the 44 claims developed by the American Legion were excluded, for reasons that he said included a lack of federal evidence, an administrative problem and the claimant's own refusal to be included in the program.
Since the Legion's visit in March, Scheibel said, the VA has used "an aggressive brokering strategy" to improve local performance.
"This strategy, coupled with the current focus to work claims for veterans who have waited the longest, has resulted in a dramatic reduction in claims pending greater than one year," Scheibel said in a statement.
In the last six months, the Baltimore office reduced the number of pending claims to 8,500 from 19,000, according to the VA. The number of veterans waiting on a decision for more than a year dropped from more than 10,600 to fewer than 3,300, Scheibel said.
The Legion and other service organizations agreed last year to work with the VA to help veterans submit fully developed claims with evidence to support their injuries, such as hospital records and military documents.
Ensuring that the claims have all the necessary documents before they are submitted dramatically decreases the amount of time it takes for the VA to issue a decision on whether to grant disability benefits. When the program was launched last year, fully developed claims were processed about twice as fast as traditional claims.
The Legion provides more than 2,600 accredited representatives nationwide to help veterans submit disability claims to the VA's 56 regional offices. The organization selected eight regional offices to review for performance, including Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis and Denver.
Jones said the Baltimore office has shown signs of progress since the Legion's visit six months ago.
"We have noticed since then, Baltimore has taken some measures to improve," she said in an interview Thursday. "We're expecting greater things."
After The Baltimore Sun reported in January that the local office was the worst in the country at processing claims, Maryland lawmakers, led by Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, demanded the VA dedicate resources to improving its performance.
VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki responded by sending Baltimore employees to training courses, sending in senior staff and deploying a new digital processing system ahead of schedule. The VA also initiated a plan to immediately evaluate and pay the oldest disability claims.
Shinseki has pledged to eliminate the VA's backlog by 2015 and accurately process 98 percent of claims.
The error rate in Baltimore is 22.9 percent, the highest in the country, according to the most recent data available. Nearly 78 percent of cases are backlogged — 125 days old — making the office one of the slowest.
Rep. Jeff Miller, a Florida Republican who chairs the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, called on all of the VA's regional offices to comply with Shinseki's plan.
"VA will never be able to meet its goal of ending the backlog by 2015 if its regional offices refuse to get on board with major, department-wide initiatives such as the Fully Developed Claims program," Miller said in a statement Thursday. "Breakdowns in the chain of command must not be tolerated and those responsible must be held to account. Veterans in Maryland and across America deserve nothing less."
Jones said her organization witnessed varying levels of commitment to the expedited claim programs at its stops around the country.
"Where there was not committed 'buy-in' … among management," she testified, "the employees would not buy in, and the program would struggle to succeed."
In Baltimore, she said, "poor file management and high employee turnover contribute to morale problems and poor performance."
Scheibel described local efforts to improve.
A month after the Legion's visit, he said, the office appointed a new coordinator for fully developed claims.
Jones said the lack of a program coordinator to shepherd the claims through the process as a contributing factor to the troubles in Baltimore.
Scheibel said Baltimore employees were trained in the Fully Developed Claims program by the Indianapolis office, which received high praise from Jones in her congressional testimony.
Scheibel said the number of fully developed claims submitted to the Baltimore office jumped from 66 in April to 762 in August, Scheibel said. The number submitted on behalf of veterans by the Legion grew from three to 44.
He attributed the increases to "increased collaboration" with service organizations and congressional offices. He called the program a "vital tool" that would enable the agency to meet Shinseki's performance goals.
Jones called for the progress to continue.
"When everything works together, it's the veterans who win," she told the House members.