Blog on the Run: Reloaded

Monday, August 24, 2009 8:22 pm

Caring for them who shall have borne the battle …

ain’t going so well:

While hundreds of thousands of disability claims lay backlogged at the Department of Veterans Affairs, thousands of technology employees at the department received $24 million in bonuses, a new report says.

Lawmakers want to know why some IT workers in the VA Department have received millions in bonuses.

A report issued by the VA’s Office of Inspector General said the department issued millions of dollars in awards over a two-year period in 2007 and 2008.

“The frequent and large dollar amount awards given to employees were unusual and often absurd,” the report stated.

The reports also called the payments “not fiscally responsible.”

Four high-level employees received about $60,000, $73,000, $58,000, and $59,000, respectively, according to the report, without sufficient justification. Another employee received a $4,500 performance award within the first 90 days of her employment from a manager who said that she did not even remember her.

The annual average award per employee was about $2,500 for both years, according to the report. About 4,700 awards and bonuses were issued in 2007, and about 5,000 in 2008.

Thanks to some inside information provided me by Craig Kabatchnick, a Greensboro lawyer (and now head of the Veterans Law Pr0ject at N.C. Central’s law school) who once defended the VA against lawsuits over disability payments, I was able to write a number of stories during my last couple of years at the News & Record about problems in the system through which disabled veterans get their disability payments. Unlike VA health care, which, as I’ve noted, is a model program by and large, the VA disability-payments system has long been a royal mess.

First, it takes too long even for straightforward claims to be processed. As of a week ago today, the claim backlog stood at more than 422,000 cases nationally, up about 30,000 from a year ago. (Winston-Salem’s regional VA office, with a backlog of more than 21,000, had more cases pending than any other regional office in the country except St. Petersburg, Fla.) Nationally, more than 20 percent of cases had been pending for six months or more.

Second, filing a claim is rarely straightforward. Medical records, doctors’ statements, buddy statements and many other records must be compiled, organized and submitted. VA officials may ask, after months, that claims be re-submitted because they lacked an item or two, if they don’t reject the claim outright. And if the claim is denied, there’s a lengthy, multi-level appeals process in which, in many cases, a vet’s best hope is to win an order that his claim be re-examined at the regional-office level — in effect, starting the process over again. Vets sardonically describe the VA’s claims-handling policy as “Delay and deny and hope that I die.”

The only people under such a system who should be receiving any bonuses whatever are those whose work singularly contributes to dramatic reductions in the backlog. But so far as can be ascertained at the moment, there have been no such reductions.

The outrageous bonuses being paid to bankers whose companies are being propped up by our tax dollars are a scandal, and that’s where I’ve had my focus lately. But these bonuses for incompetence are a slap in the face to hundreds of thousands of men and women who have served our country, many of whom are permanently disabled because of their service. Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, the chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs, and North Carolina’s Richard Burr, the committee’s ranking Republican, need to join with their House counterparts to, first, put a stop to these unjustified bonuses and then do whatever it takes to reduce the claims backlog dramatically. This problem has festered for years, with publicly available Government Accountability Office reports (go here to search GAO reports by agency and date) and VA Inspector General reports documenting the problem available in numbers sufficient that no lawmaker should be able to claim ignorance. (If they, or you, want to follow along at home, you can visit the VA’s Monday Morning Workload Reports page weekly to download updated reports as Microsoft Excel spreadsheet files.)

As the Civil War was ending, Abraham Lincoln called on America in his second Inaugural Address to “care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan.” For the vets (and in some cases, their survivors) who depend on these payments, we need to do a better job.

(h/t: Fred)

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