For one frustrated claimant, VA scandal a lightbulb moment
By TRICIA L. NADOLNY | The Philadelphia Inquirer | Published: July 28, 2014
The letter came last month, alerting Mike Pearson that his mother's benefits request had arrived and would be handled with urgency. But, the Department of Veterans Affairs warned, there could be delays.
Pearson already knew that. He filed the claim two years earlier.
"It's just as if any document I send goes into a black hole," he said.
Weeks after the disclosure that 68 bins of old mail from veterans had been found at the Philadelphia office -- and after VA officials pledged immediate action -- it has become clear that its problems surrounding document management run deep.
Last week, at least 84 boxes of mail that had been returned to the Philadelphia VA when it didn't reach its intended recipient were piled up, one employee told The Inquirer. The center's director estimated that the facility's return-mail backlog was 18,000 envelopes deep and had been sitting since March 2012.
Around the region, veterans and their relatives were wondering whether the revelations might finally explain why their inquiries and VA claims were too often met with silence.
"We sent paperwork to the VA on Wissahickon Avenue. It disappeared into the face of the earth," said Anne Rollins, who said her in-laws were forced to sell their West Chester home when they ran out of money waiting for their benefit claim to be processed.
At an East Norriton nursing home Thursday, Pearson sat beside his 88-year-old mother, Novella Pearson, as she smoothed her hair with red fingernails and smiled sweetly at the son she doesn't remember.
Mounting expenses due to her dementia led the family to apply for benefits in September 2012, but Pearson, of Philadelphia, said he has had no success, despite repeatedly sending documents to the Veterans Affairs Regional Office in Germantown. He finally wrote to Sen Bob Casey (D., Pa.). The VA's response last month was to ask him for documents he said he has already sent.
When Pearson said he read about the bins of neglected old papers found at the VA, he wondered whether his mother's had been tossed into a bin as well.
"It highlighted what I had assumed," he said. "That there wasn't a malicious plot . . . just incompetency and disregard."
Concerns over document and mail management have cropped up at regional benefits offices across the country. In response, the VA ordered an audit of the mail in every office.
A team from the VA Office of Inspector General is investigating allegations that mail has been shredded or "hidden" at the Philadelphia VA, as well as that dates on claims have been changed to make the backlog appear smaller. The team has been at the center for three weeks; a spokeswoman declined to provide an update on their progress.
Concerns over the handling of mail in Philadelphia were brought to light in 2012 when Ryan Cease, 31, a whistle-blower who worked at the facility for about five years, alerted officials about mail near his desk that was marked for shredding.
He said many pieces were what the VA has called "military mail," claims that sorters couldn't identify because vets left off essential information.
Cease rifled through the documents and believed that, with little effort, the office could identify some of the veterans who sent them. But the employees marking them for shredding weren't trying, he said.
"They weren't in front of a computer," he told The Inquirer. "They were just putting it in boxes."
VA officials reiterated last week that no mail had been shredded, but that a team of investigators did find returned mail yet to be processed.
Two years later, returned mail is still stacked up, according to a sorter at the facility's Pension Management Center.
The employee, a veteran who asked to not be named because he was not authorized to discuss VA operations, said the 84 boxes he counted Wednesday appeared to be mostly full of notices that didn't affect a claim. That didn't make him any less upset.
"It's telling them [vets] that we are working, we're aware of your status," he said. "It shows them that the VA has some concern."
He said processing the incoming mail was also a problem, one that stemmed from low staffing and a pressure to sort quickly -- at times, 10 claims an hour.
He said sometimes deciphering a difficult claim could take a full hour -- and some coworkers might not bother. "It is happening," he said. "It's not obvious. But it is happening."
Pledges to improve
Diana Rubens, who became the facility's director two weeks ago, said management of the 74,000 pieces of correspondence that could flood the facility monthly wasn't a new challenge. In an interview Thursday, Rubens cited improvements in recent years and said that two months ago, the facility began scanning mail as it was opened to immediately log it into the system.
In regards to "military mail," Rubens said sorters were making every effort to identify incoming claims. Those that can't be connected to a veteran are held for a match at a later date, she said.
The center has been unable to keep up with backlogs for other kinds of mail and documents, she said, including the bins recently found by the inspector general.
The inspector general voiced concern because decisions on those cases could be made without all necessary information.
Rubens said the documents were actually for claims that were already completed in 2011. She said that the papers needed to be scanned, but that their information had been entered into the VA system. Since being flagged by the inspector general, all but 20 of the bins have been scanned, and the rest -- about 25,000 documents -- will be processed by Aug. 4, she said.
Rubens said her staff would then begin to address the 18,000-piece backlog of returned mail, all of which was from 2011 and 2012. She said most appeared to be nonessential notifications.
"I am concerned that we have that many boxes," she said. "Which is why, as we free up resources, as we complete the claim scanning, we're going to work on tackling that returned mail expeditiously."
'Too tired to fight'
Rollins, a Chester County resident, said she received mail from the VA when she was applying for benefits on behalf of her in-laws in 2010. But the VA, she said, never seemed to get anything she sent it.
Her husband's parents, Richard and Betty Rollins, had applied for benefits as soon as their assets dipped below the $80,000 threshold, she said. While waiting to be approved, they burned through their savings on nursing-home bills, she said.
Rollins said, in that time, she sent the VA papers that didn't make it into their claim folder, faxed documents -- to be told one page was missing -- and went long stretches thinking the claim was being addressed.
She doesn't suspect the errors were intentional, but a product of disorganization in the VA. Today, she thinks her in-laws could be owed back pay from the VA. But she isn't trying to collect it.
"We're just too tired to fight," she said.
In contrast, Pearson is only renewing his effort, now fueled by urgency because his mother is nearing the end of her savings. "Will my mother live long enough to see these benefits? That's a horrible thing, to put any child in a position to think that," he said.
On Friday, after being informed about Pearson's case by The Inquirer, a VA spokeswoman called the delay "unacceptable."
She provided a timeline of Pearson's case that showed a six-month delay after it was opened in October 2012 because Pearson signed the documents himself rather than giving his mother's signature. (He said he was advised to do so by a county veterans affairs specialist because he holds power of attorney over his mother's affairs.)
He completed an application in May 2013, and four months later, the VA asked for additional information. He says he sent it; the VA says he didn't.
The claim was denied in March.
The VA said it contacted Pearson last month after receiving correspondence from Casey's office. On Friday, a VA representative spoke with Pearson again and promised to follow up.
If the claim is approved, Pearson said, it will go a long way to ease the burden of his mother's unforeseen nursing-home bills.
Pearson said his parents worked hard -- she as a beauty-salon owner and he as a coal miner in West Virginia and a shipyard worker in Chester -- to save for retirement.
She lost those memories years ago, along with most recollections of her husband, who fought in World War II and earned her the benefits her son was now starved to secure.
"There's no doubt in my mind her case has fallen into a black hole," Pearson said. "And the shame of it is, my father's paperwork didn't fall into a black hole when he was called to service."