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Whistleblower claims records manipulation by VA appeals board

JOE GROMELSKI/STARS AND STRIPES

By TRAVIS J. TRITTEN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: September 10, 2014

WASHINGTON — Mirroring a scandal that engulfed its health care system, VA managers handling disability benefit appeals also manipulated records to hide overly long delays in deciding cases, an agency whistleblower testified Wednesday on Capitol Hill.

The chairman and head office staff of the Board of Veterans’ Appeals shifted cases in a tracking system in 2012 to wipe evidence it had held some for months, and over a year in at least one case, Kelli Kordich, an attorney with the board, told a House Veterans Affairs subcommittee.

The sworn testimony sparked concerns among lawmakers that the systematic practice of doctoring electronic records at hundreds of VA hospitals and clinics to disguise long wait times may have spread to other areas of the sprawling federal agency.

The Board of Veterans’ Appeals, which now has 280,000 pending appeals cases, said the incidents happened two years ago and were quickly fixed.

Kordich said a VA union sent a letter to former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki in June 2012 notifying him that board staff were unnecessarily delaying appeals. Veteran cases ranged from 120 to 415 days old, including five cases held personally by the board’s principal deputy vice chairman.

“Most of the cases involved decisions on appeals of waiting veterans that already had been prepared by board attorneys and were simply awaiting the signature” of the head office staff, she said.

When the board became aware of the complaint to Shinseki, top staff members entered the electronic case tracking system and reassigned the old cases to new attorneys, Kordich said.

“This had the effect of resetting the calculation of how many days the appeal had languished in one location,” Kordich said.

She also outlined what she called a “toxic” office atmosphere characterized by “unchecked mismanagement, corruption and blatant disregard for out nation’s veterans.” Kordich said all the managers involved in delaying the appeals received employee bonuses and were later promoted.

Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-Texas, said he has been hearing warnings and complaints from veterans in his district about problems with the appeals board and delays of up to two years in VA reaching decisions.

“I don’t think we realized the crisis that was developing in the appeals process,” he said.

VA Board Vice Chairman Laura Eskenazi, who Kordich claimed personally delayed five appeals cases in 2012, told lawmakers that some cases languished due to specific issues preventing a decision or because board attorneys were overloaded with work.

Eskenazi said she made changes that fixed the delays.

“I’m happy to report the measures I took are still in place today and we did not go back to that same bottleneck,” she said.

Meanwhile, the board has focused for years on improving its workplace atmosphere, Eskenazi said.

“I’ve done countless things to address [workplace] climate and I think we made improvements, but we still have work to do,” she said.

Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., said he did not accept Eskenazi’s explanation for the delayed appeals decisions, including one that took more than 600 days to resolve.

“He was very busy and didn’t have time — that is the lamest excuse I’ve ever heard in my life,” Roe said.

He said veterans sometimes depend on an appeals decision to pay for utilities and other basic necessities, and board staff should have to explain the delays in person.

tritten.travis@stripes.com
Twitter: @Travis_Tritten
 

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