WASHINGTON — The Department of Veterans Affairs’ regional office in Anchorage, Alaska, processed a key category of disability claims improperly half the time, and the staff allowed some cases to languish nearly two years because of improper follow-up, according to a recent federal audit.
The report last month from the VA’s inspector general is part of an ongoing, routine review of the VA’s 56 regional offices nationwide that process disability claims. The Anchorage office had the full-time equivalent of 39 workers, the inspection report said.
The assessment focused on two key types of disability claims, and the findings are limited to those – not all activities or all kinds of claims. The inspector general’s review, which took place last June, looked at claims for veterans receiving temporary 100 percent disability benefits and those with traumatic brain injury, as well as some of the oldest claims on the books.
The inspector general said the regional office had incorrectly processed 18 of 38 cases it reviewed, resulting in $139,177 in overpayments to veterans and $19,220 in underpayments.
Among the temporary disability cases, 15 of 30 were incorrectly processed.
The VA has struggled for years to speed up its slow, error-prone disability-claims process. The department is involved in a widespread transformation of its operations that it hopes will correct those problems by 2015.
At the time of the inspection, the Anchorage office’s error rate was 19 percent, among the lowest-performing of the VA’s regional offices and well below the VA’s long-term goal of 2 percent.
The inspection report detailed how some claims may languish for months. The VA’s long-term goal is to ensure that no claim takes longer than 125 days to process.
– On Nov. 23, 2009, the Anchorage VA office entered a veteran’s claim into its electronic records. But it didn’t take action to gather evidence for the claim for 116 days. The claim ultimately took 780 days to complete.
– On June 10, 2011, the office received evidence warranting a VA medical exam – but the staff didn’t order the exam for 210 days. The claim ultimately took 694 days to complete.
The inspector general’s review of the office’s oldest claims “showed significant delays in the development evidence-gathering phase,” which led to the tardy decisions.
The VA, in its response to the inspector general’s report, said it was correcting the specific case errors cited and was modifying procedures to minimize such errors.