eye-opener-logo6Some of the same problems that led to a scheduling scandal for the Department of Veterans Affairs’ health network also infected the agency’s benefits division, according to VA employees and federal watchdog agencies.

Witnesses at a House Veterans Affairs Committee hearing on Monday evening testified that the Veterans Benefits Administration created unrealistic goals, manipulated data to meet its targets and fostered a corrosive culture in which accountability is scarce and managers punish workers who report wrongdoing. Various official reviews have shown similar problems at VA medical centers nationwide.

VA Assistant Inspector General Linda Halliday said her office substantiated claims of data manipulation at a Philadelphia benefits office, saying processors changed dates for old benefits claims, making them appear new.

Federal officials prepare to testify about VA benefits processing during a hearing on Capitol Hill. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Halliday testified that similar complaints are coming in from other regional offices, including Baltimore, Little Rock, Los Angeles, and Oakland. “We are concerned at how quickly the number of [regional offices] with allegations is occurring,” she said.

The VA said in a statement on Monday that the problem resulted from “confusion and misapplication” of a 2014 leadership memo that authorized processors to mark overlooked claims with the dates they were found, a so-called “discovered date,” instead of the dates they were submitted.

VA Undersecretary for Benefits Allison Hickey said at the hearing that the guidance, which was recently suspended nationwide, represented a “pro-veteran position,” explaining that it allowed processors to approve old claims without sending applicants back for more examinations by doctors.

Allison Hickey, VA under secretary for benefits, testifies at a hearing. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

The guidelines said each use of a “discovered date” required an explanation, as well as approval from a top administrator and notification to a higher office. A review of 30 such cases last month by the inspector general’s office found that none were in full compliance with the guidelines.

Kristin Ruell, a VA claims examiner with the Philadelphia office, said managers there instructed employees to change the dates “on any claims, regardless of the circumstances, if they were older than a certain date.”

Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla), who chairs the committee, read from a VA leadership memo that told employees: “There will be no negative consequences for you, the employees, as a result of following this guidance. The only possible negative consequences are those that exist if we fail to meet our goals for this project and for any actions that keep us from doing so.”

Miller questioned the VA’s goal of processing claims within 125 days and criticized the agency for using inappropriate record-keeping methods to create the “appearance of success.”

“There is not a corner that VBA leadership will not cut nor a statistic that they will not manipulate to lay claim to a hollow victory,” he said. “What we all want to see, both my Republican and Democrat colleagues, is progress, not deception.”

Monday’s hearing came hours after the VA released its latest processing numbers, showing that the agency had reduced its inventory of longstanding claims by 56 percent since the inventory reached a high of 611,000 cases in March 2013.

Asked whether she trusts the new figures, Halliday said: “At this point, I would say no, I can’t trust those numbers.”

All three VA employees who testified at Monday’s hearing, each of whom came from separate benefits centers, said their managers had retaliated against them for coming forward about data manipulation.

VA disability rater Javier Soto, who worked at a Columbia, S.C. office but was later transferred to Orlando, Fla. after exposing problems, said the issue of whistleblower reprisals appears to be systemic. “There are very few managers who handle it differently,” he said.

Some of the employees said they were warned not to elevate concerns past their direct supervisors. Hickey said they should never be concerned about such actions. “I need to be an avenue by which employees can talk about their concerns, and I am open to that,” she said.

The VA said Monday that it has taken several steps to address problems with the “discovered date” method, saying it is looking for misuse at other regional offices, referring newly discovered issues to the inspector general’s office and correcting claims that were affected by “misinterpretation” of the May 2013 guidance.

Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson has also promised accountability for any employees who intentionally misused the policy.