WASHINGTON — The Wichita regional office of the Department of Veterans Affairs made errors in half of a set of key disability reviews, often because of poor training or because staff wasn’t scheduling medical exams as required, according to a recent inspection.
The report by the VA’s inspector general looked at cases at the Wichita regional office, which handles disability claims from veterans who live in Kansas. It took a random sample of three important types of disability claims, finding that 36 of 70 were incorrectly processed; of those 36, 10 affected the veterans’ benefits and 26 had the potential to.
The regional office management agreed with the findings and has begun to correct the errors identified, the report said. In an interview, VA officials said they were in the midst of a significant transformation of their benefits operation and that error rates and processing times – both longtime issues for the VA – are expected to drop.
The inspector general’s report stemmed from routine investigations of the VA’s regional offices around the country.
Compared with national averages, Wichita’s performance on disability compensation claims is better than average. According to department data as of Oct. 31, its error rate on all claims – not just the high-profile ones reviewed by the inspector general – is 9.7 percent, compared with the national average of 13.6 percent.
The average time it takes to process a claim is 254 days, compared with the national average of 277, according to the most recent figures.
But while Wichita is better than national norms, it’s well below the VA’s performance goals, as are many of the VA’s regional offices. The VA’s stated long-term goals are to process all claims in fewer than 125 days, in an average of 80 days and at an error rate of just 2 percent.
“Our undersecretary is constantly challenging us to go faster and find better efficiencies,” said Beth McCoy, a VA official who oversees offices in the region of the country that includes Wichita.
Mitzi Marsh, the director in the Wichita regional office, said the errors identified by the inspector general were for the most part due to training and that the office had implemented training procedures to prevent their reoccurrence.
“There’s a learning curve for our employees to get used to processing claims in an electronic format rather than a paper one,” Marsh said. “I believe the Wichita RO is through that learning curve for the most part. . . . So our employees are doing well and we are moving in an upward direction.”
The reorganization involves routing certain types of claims into specialized “lanes” to move them through with dedicated reviewers. The VA is in the midst of working to end its reliance on paper-based processing.
The disability benefits are awarded to veterans who suffered physical or mental injuries during their military service. Benefits vary based on the severity of a disability and range from $129 a month to $2,816 a month for a single veteran. The VA has struggled for years to reduce the waiting times, and each year it stresses to Congress that fixing the process is a top priority.
The inspection of the Wichita regional office looked at the processing of disability claims involving traumatic brain injury, those for exposure to herbicides such as Agent Orange and those for certain cases of temporary disability. All three are important – and sometimes complex – conditions for the VA’s reviewers.
The inspector general said the regional office had incorrectly processed 36 of the 70 cases they sampled and overpaid a total of $152,722 because of the errant claims.
One problem flagged by the inspector general was a failure to properly schedule medical re-examinations. In the sample of claims reviewed by the inspector general, scheduling these re-examinations was delayed by 14 months to more than five years. The VA said those long delays were the results of problems at the national level and that the department had already addressed it.
Another type of problem was a VA worker failing to tell a veteran he was potentially entitled to an additional benefit.
The VA regional office agreed with the inspector general’s recommendations for improvement and was beefing up training in response.