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Part 1 | From March 22, 2014

Paper mine pushes ahead, but still behind the times

In March, The Washington Post wrote about one of the strangest offices in the country: an underground mine in Pennsylvania, where federal workers in rock-walled caverns process retirement paperwork for other government employees.

Nine months later, not much has changed in the paperwork mine.

Retirement case files are still assembled on paper, and still passed from office to office, cavern to cavern. Then the data is still entered by hand into a computer, one line at a time. Although that slow-moving system works, retirees can wait weeks or months before they receive their full pension check (although they get smaller payments in the interim).

The good news is that the mine’s backlog is smaller than it was before. Since The Post’s article ran in March, the number of unprocessed retirement cases has fallen by about 40 percent, from 23,600 to 14,000.

The reason? At the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), a spokeswoman said that the shifts for the mine workers, as they call themselves, were rearranged to be more efficient, and that the office worked with other federal agencies so the incoming paperwork had fewer errors. The average time to process a case dropped: In March, it was more than 61 days; by October, it was 58.9 days.

Another reason for the improvement may be the calendar.

There usually is a slowdown in new retirement applications at year’s end, and that often allows the mine workers a chance to catch up. But a surge normally occurs in January. If that happens in 2015, the mine’s backlog of cases could get bigger again.

The problem that broke this bureaucracy was, of course, technology.

Or, an utter lack thereof.

In recent years, two huge efforts to computerize the retirement process sputtered and then failed, leaving workers with a system that had not changed since the 1970s. Now, OPM wants to try again. Next year, officials at the agency said, it will begin the process of hiring a contractor to create a new electronic case-management system.

“I remain puzzled why processing a federal retirement package remains paper-based, while products such as TurboTax help millions file their complicated tax returns quickly and electronically,” Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Tex.) said in an oversight hearing on Wednesday.

In the hearing, Farenthold asked an OPM official if the agency was truly committed to changing its antiquated process.

“The short answer to that is ‘yes,’ ” said Kenneth J. Zawodny Jr., an OPM official who oversees retirement processing. “Overwhelming enthusiasm to become more modern.”

Part 2 | May 3

Congress tries to cut down on un-needed reports

In a tiny victory for efficiency in government, the Dog and Cat Fur Protection report is dead.

On Nov. 26, President Obama signed a bill that eliminated the report, which The Washington Post spotlighted in May.

The report was one of 4,291 that Congress had demanded other agencies produce and send in on a regular basis. Together, the reports were supposed to provide a way for Congress to oversee the workings of the vast bureaucracies over which it has jurisdiction. But Congress’s in-house oversight system broke down.

The reason for the failure was — ironically — its lack of oversight by Congress.

Decades ago, lawmakers lost track of how many reports they had ordered up.

And how many were actually written and turned in.

And how many were actually still used on Capitol Hill.

The result, in many cases, was that federal bureaucrats spent time and taxpayer money on reports that were simply discarded by lawmakers and Hill staff members who had long ago stopped caring about the subject. Instead of building a reference library, Congress had opened up a black hole.

The dog and cat fur report, for example, became law in 2000. At the time, Congress was scandalized by reports that some imported fur coats were made from the pelts of pet species. So Congress demanded an annual update on what customs officials were doing to stop these furs at the border.

To write one of those reports required the work of at least 15 people, in six federal offices. It took weeks of research, writing and review. And then, the report was essentially ignored. Of all the committees that received the report, none could remember finding it useful.

From start to finish, producing one report required the work of at least 15 people, in six different federal offices. It took weeks.

This year, the House and the Senate voted to eliminate the dog and cat report, and 47 others. Lawmakers estimated that their Government Reports Elimination Act could save at least $1 million over five years, as federal workers turn to more useful tasks.

“One small step,” said Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), who helped lead the effort, along with Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.). “It shouldn’t be this hard.”

In addition, after the Post article ran, the House’s new majority leader said he wanted to make sure that future reports do not turn out like this one, an immortal burden on the federal bureaucracy. In a memo to colleagues, Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said he wanted to add legal “sunsets” to new reports so that they expire after a few years.

But, as the year went on, the problem actually seemed to get bigger, not smaller.

In fact, a scan of new laws showed that Congress had ordered up at least 69 new reports — more than canceling out the 48 it had eliminated in Warner’s bill.

Part 3 | May 30

A new leader, and his cellphone, try to reform the VA

One of the great tests of any bureaucracy is whether it can transmit bad news from the workers at the bottom to the leaders at the top. This fall, the new leader at the Department of Veterans Affairs did something that acknowledged how badly the department had failed that test.

He started giving out his personal cellphone number.

To Congress. To reporters. And to veterans he met.

It was an admission that one of the VA’s most vital parts — a performance-measurement system that was supposed to track whether VA hospitals were keeping up with demand from patients — had broken down. When the facts became too depressing, VA workers began feeding that system fiction instead.

In the wake of a devastating scandal, Secretary Robert McDonald decided the best way to get the truth about patients was to cut out the middlemen, and talk with patients himself. He said this was not a long-term solution to the VA’s problem.

“We’ve got to design this organization so it doesn’t depend on my cellphone,” McDonald told a group of veterans’ organizations.

In May, The Washington Post described how the VA — once lauded for its use of statistics in management — wound up with a system that deluded its leaders, and obscured real problems for veterans.

The problem was a lack of accountability, which did not register in the upper levels of the VA’s towering 12-layer bureaucracy.

The leaders in Washington said they wanted accurate data on how long veterans had to wait for a doctor’s appointment. But lower-level officials had an incentive to fudge the numbers: They often got paid more if wait times appeared to go down.

So they pressured clerks at the bottom of the bureaucracy to falsify wait times, using computer tricks and off-the-books waiting lists. And the clerks often chose the bosses they knew, over the Washington leaders they didn’t.

This year, the revelation of long wait times and falsified statistics at the VA hospital in Phoenix led to the resignation of Secretary Eric K. Shinseki.

After the scandal broke, VA said it would no longer use wait-time statistics for awarding bonuses. It also sought to discipline officials, both high- and low-level, who had helped manipulate wait-time data.

In addition, Congress required the VA to begin publishing its wait-time statistics, so veterans could compare one hospital to another. And it required the VA to set up a program that allowed veterans who waited too long for an appointment, or who live too far from a VA hospital, to seek treatment from another hospital at the government’s expense.

Part 4 | August 16

Brakes pulled on Medicare scam

In August, The Washington Post described how a breakdown in the Medicare system helped enable one of the great success stories in American crime. For more than 15 years, scammers had taken millions from Medicare, using a con that revolved around the motorized wheelchair.

Since then, a string of court cases has provided new glimpses into how big the wheelchair swindle was, during its long heyday.

– In San Francisco, a 71-year-old doctor was sentenced to 24 months in prison for her role in a wheelchair scam that netted $1.6 million from Medicare between 2006 and 2011. Prosecutors said the doctor got $100 for each bogus prescription she wrote, saying a patient needed a wheelchair when he or she really didn’t.

– In Los Angeles, the owner of a medical supply company was sentenced to 30 months in prison for running a scheme that drew $1.5 million in bogus payments for wheelchairs between 2006 and 2009. The patients who got wheelchairs didn’t need them, prosecutors said.

Other patients never got wheelchairs at all.

– In Tyler, Tex., a Ni­ger­ian woman pleaded guilty in connection with a scheme that swindled Medicare out of $1.6 million between 2007 until 2009. In some of the cases, prosecutors said, she got Medicare to buy wheelchairs for some people who were far beyond the need for them. They were dead.

In each case, the scam was made possible by a bureaucratic failure: At Medicare, a vital system had become overwhelmed by the incoming tasks it was supposed to handle.

Medicare, the government-funded insurance program for seniors, receives about 4.9 million new claims a day. Only a small fraction of them — 3 percent or less — are actually checked by a live person before the claim is paid.

In each case, the scam was made possible by a bureaucratic failure: At Medicare, a vital system had become overwhelmed by the incoming tasks it was supposed to handle.

Medicare, the government-funded insurance program for seniors, receives about 4.9 million new claims a day. Only a small fraction of them — 3 percent or less — are actually checked by a live person before the claim is paid.

The wheelchair scam took advantage of that blind spot.

Criminals disguised themselves as legitimate medical supply companies, then said they had provided wheelchairs to Medicare beneficiaries who needed them. In reality, the wheelchairs were not needed. But Medicare was usually too buried to notice, and so the criminals pocketed the huge markup the government paid for each chair.

The government says it has finally caught up with the wheelchair scam.

One major reason: Starting in 2012, Medicare began reviewing power-wheelchair claims in some states before it paid them.

Today, the success of that program — in use in 19 states — has provided an astounding sense of how many claims might have been bogus.

Since then, new data show, the government’s overall spending on power wheelchairs has fallen by an astounding 78 percent, from $32 million every month to $7 million.

Part 5 | October 18

The backlog got bigger

In October, The Washington Post chronicled one of Washington’s worst bureaucratic backlogs: At the Social Security Administration, one slow-moving office had fallen 990,000 cases behind.

After The Post wrote about that system, something changed.

The backlog got bigger.

The office is now 1 million cases behind.

The number of people waiting for action from this office is 1,003,580. They are stuck in an oddball legal system that has been a bureaucratic breaking point for nearly 40 years. It costs millions to operate, makes questionable decisions with taxpayer money and forces people who’ve applied for disability benefits to wait 422 days for a life-changing decision.

Or, rather, 435.

Since The Post published its article, the average wait has increased by 13 days.

This slow-moving system handles appeals from people who’ve applied for disability benefits and been turned down by government officials who ruled that they were not disabled enough. If they appeal, they can reach this office and have their case heard by a special kind of federal judge.

The system fails because of its incredible complexity.

In each case, the judges are required to scour hundreds of pages of medical records, and then determine whether the U.S. economy includes any jobs that the person could manage to hold. The judges must deal with volumes of regulations, and with an official guide to the U.S. economy that hasn’t been updated since 1991. They have never been able to get through these cases fast enough to keep up with the incoming volume.

At the Social Security Administration, officials said the backlog had grown to 1 million people for the same reasons it had grown to 990,000 people.

The problem, they said, was that Congress had not given them the money or the people necessary to make the system work faster.

“We were hit by the perfect storm,” LaVenia LaVelle, a Social Security spokeswoman, said in an e-mail. At the same time that the recession drove many unemployed Americans to seek benefits, she wrote, “we were forced to endure budget cuts, a government shutdown, and a shortage of administrative law judges.”

In the weeks since the article came out, the administration’s most notable reaction has been to open ethics investigations of two of the judges who were quoted. Judges Carol Pennock and Thomas Snook both told The Post about their frustrations with the system.

Now, the judges’ union says, both are facing questions about whether they broke agency rules.

“I suspect they are in serious jeopardy for discipline,” said Randall Frye, who is president of the union. “I think it’s unfortunate that they’re in that kind of jeopardy.”

The Social Security Administration declined to comment about the union’s account.

Published December 15, 2014.