WASHINGTON — Troubled by delays in handling veterans claims, a bipartisan group of senators on Wednesday urged a wide-scale, independent review of the Department of Veterans Affairs for mismanagement and changes to improve budgeting and speed up applications.
A report released by nine senators acknowledged recent efforts by the VA to reduce disability and pensions claims backlogs but said it wasn't enough. Pointing to the VA's worst performers such as the Philadelphia regional office, the lawmakers were announcing legislation that would require the Government Accountability Office to investigate all 56 regional offices for problems.
It was the latest sign of congressional concern that recent findings of mismanagement at the Philadelphia VA — including neglected mail, manipulation of dates to make old claims look new and alteration of quality reviews — might point to a broader, departmentwide problem.
"The VA system again finds itself engulfed in another scandal," said Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., co-chairman of the Senate's VA backlog working group. VA offices nationwide are suffering from poor management, he said, proving "it is time for an overhaul of the entire system."
Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., the other co-chairman, said he too was worried that problems were not isolated to Philadelphia. "It's simply unacceptable to have a veteran with a disability wait hundreds of days for their claim to be resolved," he said.
The VA says there are 161,000 disability and compensations claims on backlog, defined as pending more than 125 days. That's down from a peak of 611,000 in March 2013. But the VA inspector general has questioned the accuracy of the data.
Based on a review of VA records, the Senate report said the 10 worst-performing regional offices as judged by wait times were Baltimore; Jackson, Mississippi; Reno, Nevada; Philadelphia; Los Angeles; Chicago; Oakland, California; Indianapolis; Boston; and St. Petersburg, Florida.
As of April, the VA's inspector general had documented doctored data or other problems at five of the 10 offices.
The report calls on the IG to determine whether claims processors should be held to deadlines and calls on the department to beef up manager training, complete an updated assessment of staffing and budget needs within six months, and keep Congress informed about its transition to an electronic claims systems.
Allison Hickey, the VA's undersecretary for benefits, has said she does not believe problems in Philadelphia are "systemic" but more likely a case of misunderstood policies.
Delays in compensation claims prompted veterans groups to seek changes last year before attention shifted to problems at the Phoenix VA medical center. The VA ultimately found that patient waits and falsified records in its health network were "systemic," leading to the resignation of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki.
Groups including Veterans of Foreign Wars, American Legion, Disabled American Veterans and Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America endorsed Wednesday's report and the legislation.