The powerful chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee is giving the Veterans Affairs Department 10 days to come up with a plan for an attitude adjustment at VA’s Baltimore regional office after hearing complaints that employees there seem more interested in disqualifying than approving benefits claims.
In a letter sent Monday to VA , Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., chairwoman of the Senate committee that oversees funding for the federal government, said she is “deeply disappointed and frustrated” by the regional office and wants an “action plan” within 10 days to improve its “lackluster” performance.
“We cannot continue to allow the Baltimore office to perform at a level that puts our commitment to veterans in jeopardy,” Mikulski wrote in the letter, addressed to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki.
The letter is in response to Sept. 11 testimony before the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee from Verna Jones, director of the American Legion’s veterans affairs and rehabilitation division, at a hearing focusing on a VA effort to reduce claims processing time by getting veterans to do more of the footwork of collecting evidence to support their disability claims.
Jones cited the Baltimore regional office as an example of a location where the so-called “fully developed claims” program is lagging because employees did not appear to accept and embrace it.
The Baltimore office, she said, “is not one of the higher performance offices within VA. Systemic problems within the office, including poor file management and high employee turnover, contribute to morale issues and poor performance.”
“In Baltimore, it often seemed employees spent more time trying to disqualify claims from FDC [fully developed claims] than to process them, and therefore the program struggled to succeed,” Jones said.
She included an example in her prepared statement to the committee. The Legion was trying to submit a disability claim for post-traumatic stress for a veteran who was at the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, and who had helped remove remains from the building after the terrorist attack. The veteran is not identified by name in the testimony.
To support the claim, medical records were provided that show a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress, but the Baltimore claims office said it needed more information and removed the claim from the fast-track process, Jones said.
The office wanted proof the veteran was serving at the Pentagon — evidence that Jones said was available in the veteran’s personnel records, including a citation for his service that day and billeting and personnel records.
“Even when federal records were obtained and the veteran was shown assigned to a unit at the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, VA continued to try to kick the case out,” she said, because the records did not prove the veteran was actually at work that day.
“With an obstructionist attitude toward veterans’ claims like that, no program in the world is going to help right the ship,” Jones said.
Mikulski slipped a copy of Jones’ testimony into her letter to Shinseki, and noted that her staff has heard similar complaints about the Baltimore office’s “reluctance to work in cooperation” with veterans service organizations.
VA’s weekly workload reports show veterans compensation claims are taking an average 198 days to process, still well above VA’s goal of 125 days. At the Baltimore office, the average is 277 days, second slowest in the nation behind the Washington, D.C., regional office, which averages 337 days.