A House panel says the Veterans Administration made numerous errors as it hurriedly processed disability claims but had time to give special treatment to applicants who "had the ear" of influential lawmakers.
A House Government Operations Committee report, released Sunday, described two separate systems for handling claims.Applicants without "pull" had their cases rushed to judgment by error-prone managers trying to win pay bonuses for meeting production quotas, the report said.
But the panel said the Bureau of Veterans Appeals - the court of last resort for claimants whose benefits were denied - "maintained a list of congressmen who should be brought to the BVA chairman's attention if they inquire about an appeal."
At a hearing last February by the panel's subcommittee on human resources, a former appeals board member, Daniel J.B. Bierman, was asked whether there was preferential treatment when a lawmaker on the list intervened.
Bierman replied, "It is difficult for me to say, but I suspect that to be the case, sir. Otherwise, there would be no reason for it (the list)."
"The BVA . . . showed favoritism to claimants who had the ear of certain influential members of Congress," the committee concluded.
The VA said in a statement it "has not been provided with a copy of the committee's report and is obviously disadvantaged by the fact that it was released to the media before it came to us. We intend to review it thoroughly when it is received."
VA officials refused to reply to the panel's specific allegations.
Addressing the appeals board's quota system, the report said, "The Board of Veterans Appeals . . . was so caught up in an unreasonable production quota standard that some members were deciding cases at the rate of one every eight minutes."
The committee noted that earlier this year, the VA ended production-based bonuses and preferential treatment after both practices were publicized in subcommittee hearings and challenged in a lawsuit filed by Vietnam Veterans of America.
The report suggested that Congress end a 55-year-old prohibition and allow veterans who are denied benefits to appeal their cases in federal court. In 1987, veterans won less than 13 percent of the time under the now-abolished quota system at the VA appeals board.
The committee said the VA tried to cover up its frequent mistakes in disability claims by deliberately under-reporting the error rate to staffers for the human resources subcommittee, headed by Rep. Ted Weiss, D-N.Y.