Boxes of ignored mail, rodent infestations in Philadelphia latest black eye for VA

These photos from the VA Office of Inspector General report detail the dingy conditions of the VA Regional Office space in Philadelphia. Among the IG's findings were unsecured doors and pathways that made veterans' personal information vulnerable to any passersby, as well as temperature control issues that left employees seeing 'their breath crystallize and fingernails turn blue at their workstations.'


By HEATH DRUZIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: April 15, 2015

A Philadelphia VA office simultaneously underserved and overcompensated veterans, keeping them waiting for months to get answers to their benefits questions, paying out millions in duplicative benefits and housing some employees in a vermin-infested warehouse, according to a report released Wednesday by the Department of Veterans Affairs Inspector General.

In the latest bad news for an agency that has been embroiled in a yearlong scandal, the exhaustive report details a range of problems, from failure to process thousands of pieces of mail to unsafe working conditions, at the VA’s Philadelphia Regional Office.

“There is an immediate need to improve the operation and management of this VA (Regional Office) and take actions to ensure a more effective work environment,” the 78-page report reads.

One of the most striking findings was that investigators found 31,000 inquiries went unanswered for an average of 312 days even though staff is supposed to respond to each within five days.

Investigators also found 48 boxes of mail with 16,600 of documents that were supposed to have been scanned into the VA’s virtual database, potentially affecting veterans’ benefits. And that number might understate the problem: Investigators originally found 68 boxes but on a return visit four days later officials said they had scanned 20 boxes worth of documents over a weekend.

That was in addition to 22,000 pieces of returned mail, some which had been there for four years, and almost 15,000 pieces of mail related to claims processes that had not been placed in veterans’ files — some languishing unprocessed for more than three years.

Staff approved about $2.2 million in improper payments because they failed to account for duplicate records, and in at least two cases they paid dead people. Roughly 150 staffers were made to work in a leaky, dilapidated warehouse that lacked bathrooms and was infested by insects and rodents, according to the report.

“The Inspector General’s report released today confirmed our worst fears: that the Philadelphia VA Regional Office is rife with systemic mismanagement, deliberate manipulation of data and individuals more focused on misleading the nation than serving our veterans,” Rep. Patrick Meehan, R-Pa., said in a released statement.

In an email response to a reporter's query, VA spokeswoman Walinda West said the report reflected conditions in Philadelphia more than one year ago and that new director Diana Rubens immediately began remedying the problems after starting her job in July. West said the VA is doing an additional investigation of allegations of mismanagement with results expected by June 30.

“Upon receipt of the OIG’s draft report in March 3, 2015, VA had already remedied a majority of the findings and continues work to resolve the remainder of the findings based on the recommendations in the report,” West said.

However, the report specifically refutes that assertion, saying IG staff received complaints from Philadelphia VA employees as recently as March.

“Despite having concluded our onsite review work at the Philadelphia VARO on August 15, 2014, we continued to receive additional allegations of wrongdoing from VARO staff,” the report says.

Rubens herself has been at the center of another controversy, after receiving nearly $300,000 in relocation costs upon taking the Philadelphia job, though that is not part of the IG’s report. The House Committee on Veterans Affairs will examine that payment at a hearing April 22.

Zack Hearn, deputy director for claims for the Legion, said he met with Rubens in March and that he worries her assurances that problems had been fixed might not have been true. He said he’s especially concerned that many senior leaders in charge when the reports started coming in are still in place.

“They led us to believe that everything was fine, that everything was running smoothly,” he said. “There seems to be a little bit of contradiction (in the report) in what’s happening at the VA regional office.”

The report was released a day after VA Secretary Bob McDonald convened a new advisory panel of business leaders, academics, health care experts and veterans to offer outside advice for his ambitious plan to reorganize the federal government’s second largest department.

In April revelations that veterans were dying after being put on secret waitlists at a VA medical center in Phoenix led to a nationwide crisis in veterans health care. VA facilities across the country have been implicated in wrongdoing, from manipulating data to poor treatment of suicidal patients and over-prescription of narcotics. The scandal cost former VA secretary Eric Shinseki his job.

McDonald has been under increasing pressure from lawmakers and veterans’ advocates to speed the pace of reforms and fire officials blamed for malfeasance, many of whom are still working or on paid administrative leave.

Twitter: @Druzin_Stripes