August 27, 2013

VA rewarded workers for avoiding complicated claims

The department gave millions of dollars in bonuses to avoid claims that needed extra work to document veterans' injuries.

By MARY SHINN, DANIEL MOORE and STEVEN RICH The shington Post/News21

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At the Healing Horse Therapy Center in Florida, Army veteran Jessie de Leon copes with the aftermath of the sexual trauma she experienced while in the service.

Kelsey Hightower/Wahington Post/News21

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Stephen Leon, a combat veteran who is 70 percent disabled, holds granddaughter Ashley Leon at his apartment in Revere, Mass., in June.

Mary Shinn/Washington Post/News 21

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"I think after a couple of years of seeing things piling up, they realized that that didn't work," said Bump, a member of the bargaining committee that has met three times with the VBA in 10 months to discuss changing the standards.

The Baltimore office, which has the longest wait times in the country, gave bonuses averaging $1,100 each to 40 percent of its workforce. The Oakland, Calif., office, which shut its doors to retrain underperforming employees, awarded nine out of every 10 workers a total of about $33,000 -- almost enough to pay the standard year's benefit to a veteran who is 100 percent disabled.

In Sioux Falls, S.D., claims workers processed claims four times as fast as those in Oakland and Baltimore but less than one in 10 there received extra pay last year.

A claims processor in Reno said that this "breeds cheating" and that he has seen employees who aren't making enough points go into "survival mode" and process only easy claims. Shifting performance points to reward backlog-related work would be more effective, said the worker, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisals.

"Your backlog is over here. But your points are in this direction. How stupid is that?" the worker asked.


Damon Wood's disability claim for PTSD, ringing in the ear and a bad back and knee has been cycling for 21 months through a fortified federal office building in a corporate park on the outskirts of Reno.

He quit checking its status online because it hadn't changed for more than 11 months. When he tried calling the Reno regional office for more help, he was diverted to one of VA's eight national call centers.

"Your hands are tied by the people who actually have the claim in their hands," Wood said. "So you can't do anything more or anything less. It's up to them."

Fran Lynch, a former Seattle claims processor and exam consultant, said the VA built a "wall of separation" between the workers and the veteran.

"People form opinions about veterans based on paperwork, and they make decisions based on those opinions without ever really knowing the guys' circumstance," he said.

Allison Hickey, VA undersecretary of benefits, promised veterans in April that the more than 65,000 claims two years old or older would get a temporary or permanent decision by June 19, while those waiting more than a year would be considered by October.

For the third consecutive year, the VA mandated 20 hours per month of overtime for employees for part of this year to meet the deadlines, costing the agency about $44 million. In June, the VBA processed a record 110,000 claims, officials said.

Darin Selnick, a VA political appointee in the George W. Bush administration, called the quickly finished claims an old "sleight-of-hand trick."

"They knew it was coming, and they knew it was going to get worse," Selnick said. "I think the current leadership, Allison Hickey, they do the same thing to her."


Stephen Leon served two tours in Afghanistan and won the Army Commendation Medal for valor after a firefight with three suicide bombers outside a gate in Kabul in 2011. The blast from one of their bombs left him with wrist, neck, knee, back and ankle injuries, as well as traumatic brain injury and PTSD.

When he returned home July 2011, he couldn't get his mind off Afghanistan, the battles and the friends he lost. "You're used to a life of being at peace, with yourself and your family and . . . when you go over there, all that breaks up," he said.

Facing financial difficulties and struggling with PTSD, he was forced to move in with his mother.

"I couldn't get a dime for claims, I couldn't get in touch with anyone, and the ones I could get in touch with, they didn't want to help me anyway," he said.

He enlisted the help of an independent advocate, who fought for his claim and connected him with housing and better PTSD treatment. He was rated 70 percent disabled a year ago and now lives in his own apartment in Revere, Mass.

Without the help of an advocate and without the money, Leon said, he is convinced he would be homeless or dead.


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Air Force veteran Damon Wood was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder after serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has been waiting 20 months for a disability rating.

Jessica Wilde/Washington Post/News 21


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