Department of Veterans Affairs Undersecretary for Benefits Allison Hickey hugs Intake Specialist Nancy Enriquez-Ryan during a surprise stop to see overtime workers at the Denver VA on Feb. 28.
Veterans Affairs whistleblowers from two VA regional offices — Philadelphia and Oakland — told a U.S. House committee hearing that management at their benefits claims office “created a hostile work environment” that has left employees “very demoralized,” and they endured psychological abuse after they reported failures to process thousands of claims.
The VA says that the situation is improving. But those at the Philadelphia and Oakland regional offices testifying Wednesday in front of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs said the problems are ongoing and the culture to silence whistleblowers has not changed.
“Without removing the officials making the bad decisions, this issue will continue to be a revolving door of taxpayer waste,” said Kristen Ruell, an authorization quality review specialist at the Philadelphia VA regional office.
The hearing came after a scathing VA Office of Inspector General report last week detailed problems in Philadelphia, which included everything from claims being unanswered to dangerous working conditions. The report detailed mishandled mail, manipulated dates to make old claims look new and $2.2 million in duplicate benefit payments. More than 31,000 veterans’ inquiries encountered delays — an average of 312 days.
The accusations of delays and mistakes in veterans’ compensation claims come one year after the agency’s largest scandal, over long patient waits and faked records regarding appointment times at the Phoenix VA medical center. The problems were found to be “systemic,” and caused the resignation of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki.
The IG says similar complaints are being looked at in one in five VA regional offices to date, although the office said that most of those problems are not on the scale of Philadelphia’s.
VA officials say the problems in Philadelphia are not widespread.
“I don’t look at this as a systemic problem at all,” Allison Hickey, the VA’s undersecretary for benefits, told the Associated Press. “While we may have some records management problems, some misinterpretation of guidance and may even have an individual or two do things they shouldn’t have done, it’s not a reflection of the tremendous work of the VA.”
Hickey is known to do “pulse checks” of her claims officers by making surprise visits. She told The Washington Post in an earlier interview that she encourages whistleblowers to speak out. She has also made reducing the benefits backlog a centerpiece of her work. But critics say that the culture against whistleblowers has been hard to change on the ground, and the IG report shows employees are making mistakes while rushing to bring the backlog down.
[Read about Allison Hickey’s trailblazing career and toughest job yet: the VA]
Joseph Malizia, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 940, said that “drastic action needs to be taken to break these practices. The only way VA can restore its integrity is to remove the management staff in Philadelphia.”
Rustyann Brown, a whistleblower from the Oakland VA Regional Office in California, testified that claims from aging and terminally ill veterans were ignored. She said that many veterans died by the time employees addressed their claims. She said sensitive cases of military sexual trauma were not treated in accordance with rules.
Brown herself suffered from military sexual trauma while serving. And she was having difficulty reviewing the cases, since her own PTSD would flare up when reading the cases. But when she requested to have these cases removed from her work load they were not.
“I would spend time in the restroom crying or hiding in a stairwell so I could be alone and not have anyone see the physical reaction I would have to these claims,” she said, her voice quivering.
“After months of being referred to as ‘snitch’ or ‘narc’ by other employees and being isolated with my department, I put in for early retirement,” Brown said.
Diana Blender, a 73-year-old employee at the Philadelphia office, said she was mistreated by co-workers when she started to report mail manipulation.
“Sadly for me, when I unearthed the true happenings of this department and their gross, unjust manipulations of others, I was sent on a journey of daily abuse,” she told the committee.
VA Assistant Inspector General for Audits and Evaluation Linda Halliday said she will also look into a controversial payment of $301,000 in relocation compensation paid to the new Philadelphia director, Diana Rubens, upon her move from Washington, D.C., to Philadelphia.
“While VA took actions to fix problems in the VA (regional office), we recently received additional information that some of the problems identified in this report continue to negatively impact some areas of claims processing performance,” she said.
During intense questioning at the hearing, Rubens defended her compensation.
Rubens took over the Philadelphia Regional Office, which has a staff of more than 950 employees, in July 2014 and amid the VA’s controversy over data manipulation and delays in appointments for vets in Phoenix, Ariz
“Since my arrival in Philadelphia, I have been very actively engaged in understanding the challenges, reaching out to employees and our stakeholders, the veterans,” she said.