Hurry up and slow down: Is the VA in an impossible situation?

Jeff Severns Guntzel
Senior reporter
Public Insight Network

A New York Times article on duplicate payments in the Department of Veterans Affairs’ pension system walks right into the systemic challenges we detailed this month in our reporting on delays and overpayments in the VA’s processing of veterans’ benefits claims. It begins with Kristen Ruell, who works on a quality review team at the VA, who discovered a costly glitch in a payment to a veteran’s widow in 2010, and started hunting for similar errors:

“What she found surprised and worried her: the department’s database contained duplicate records for the widow, and the system was trying to pay her twice. It was also recommending a retroactive payment dating back months — though the widow had already been paid for that period.

“…she raised red flags with her bosses. If she, one of scores of payment authorizers nationwide, was just noticing the duplicate payments, was it not likely that the department had inadvertently overpaid many other people for years?

“Two years later, that concern has not been resolved, Ms. Ruell and several other pension management workers say.”

All of this happened in the VA’s pension system, which includes payments to veterans and veterans’ survivors. Pensions are outside the scope of our earlier reporting, but the underlying issues at play in the Times story parallel what we found. Correspondent James Dao writes:

“The duplicate payments are the flip side of the attempt to speedily eliminate a backlog in the processing of claims. While the backlog is widely blamed for delays in compensation to veterans, overpayments are unlikely to draw much criticism from veterans advocates.

“Workers say that both delayed payment and overpayment stem from the same circumstances: too few workers trying to process too many claims in too little time. The pressure to work swiftly despite a complex system of benefits and rules, along with outdated or trouble-prone technology, has made human and computer errors all too common, the workers say.”

According to the most recent VA data, there are nearly 75,000 pension claims pending across the country. Almost half of them have been pending for longer than four months.

The problem of duplicate pension payments has triggered the interest of the VA’s Office of the Inspector General, which has teams of inspectors producing regular reports on the medical and administrative work of the VA.

As we reported on the challenges that have arisen as the VA processes benefits claims, we interviewed Brent Arronte, who oversees some of those inspections at the inspector general’s office. His advice for claims processors, after seeing the systemwide failures that his teams had documented, seems an impossible scenario:

“Slow down. They are working at such a fast pace. I don’t know if that is realistic because they have such a large backlog and the media is putting pressure and the veterans put pressure – I don’t know.

“This is a big agency and there are a lot of rules – a lot of different types of claims and each claim has their own rules. [The Veterans Benefits Administration] typically says when they hire a person it takes generally two years for that person to be considered a journeyman, that’s a long time.”

For more, read our story on delays in the veterans’ benefits claims process, inspired by the work of the Center for Investigative Reporting, which produced a map showing claims processing statistics nationwide. I’ve written up a guide for reporters interested in localizing the coverage.

In James Dao’s Times story, “Duplicate Payments Bedevil Veterans’ Pension System,” you’ll see photographs of VA desks piled high with paper files and bins full of unprocessed incoming mail – the kinds of things we heard about over and over again in our reporting.

 >> Help us cover this story: What’s your experience with veteran disability claims?