VA whistle-blower tells of manipulations, retribution

Three current or former employees of the Department of Veterans Affairs told the House Committee on Veterans Affairs about alleged retaliation against whistle-blowers (from left): Kristen Ruell, Ronald Robinson, and Javier Soto.
Three current or former employees of the Department of Veterans Affairs told the House Committee on Veterans Affairs about alleged retaliation against whistle-blowers (from left): Kristen Ruell, Ronald Robinson, and Javier Soto. (CHIP SOMODEVILLA / Getty Images)
Posted: July 16, 2014

WASHINGTON - A whistle-blower from Philadelphia's Veterans Affairs regional office slammed her bosses at a congressional hearing Monday night, accusing them of putting bonuses above the well-being of veterans and then retaliating against her for bringing concerns to light.

Kristen Ruell told the House Committee on Veterans Affairs that over the last four years, she had complained about mail at her Germantown office being shredded by the box load, dates being changed so staff appeared to have met performance goals, and veterans receiving two or more payouts on a claim.

The last time she filed a complaint, Ruell said, her name was forwarded to the people she had reported.

"The next morning, my car was dented, and the following morning I came out to a big mess of coffee thrown on the hood and windshield of my car," she told the committee, sitting beside two other whistle-blowers also adding their experiences to the list of concerns about retribution at the VA. "While I cannot prove this was done by the people I reported, I do not put anything past the managers of the Philadelphia regional office."

The hearing took place on the day it was revealed that the regional office on Wissahickon Avenue, which oversees the administration of benefits to 825,000 veterans in eastern Pennsylvania, South Jersey, and Delaware, was under investigation by the VA Office of Inspector General. Investigators visiting the site in June reported finding evidence that staff in the facility's Pension Management Center, which serves more than a dozen states and Puerto Rico, had changed dates on some old claims to make them appear new.

All three whistle-blowers said unrealistic goals set by the VA - to eliminate the backlog by the end of 2015 - were to blame for manipulation of the kind reported in Philadelphia and for the alleged retaliation against employees who question their superiors.

The number of backlogged claims, those 125 days or older, as of Saturday was 270,913, fewer than half the number in March 2013. Ruell, a 39-year-old lawyer who has worked for the regional office for about seven years, was skeptical of those numbers because, she said, she had known staff to change the dates on thousands of claims in Philadelphia.

The policy found to have been misapplied in Philadelphia was instituted in May 2013 and allowed claims that had been overlooked in a veteran's folder, for years or in some cases decades, to be marked with the date they were found, the "discovered date." Staff in Philadelphia had used that discretion on claims that were not found in veterans' files, the inspector general said, citing 30 cases found during a June visit.

Allison Hickey, VA undersecretary for benefits, said at Monday night's hearing that the policy allegedly manipulated in Philadelphia had been put in place for tracking purposes and so that staff members, who are evaluated on the speed with which they handle claims, would not be discouraged from processing old claims.

Since the problems were discovered in Philadelphia, the policy has been suspended, and the inspector general is visiting other offices found to have an unusual number of applications of the policy.

Hickey defended the data showing a drop in the backlog. "Even with all these controls and more . . . there will always be someone you thought you could trust instead use extremely poor judgment and a total lack of integrity as they figured out ways around the system," she said.

Hickey called it "absolutely unacceptable" that staff had been discouraged from coming forward with concerns.

On June 13 and again June 20, acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson sent e-mails to all 341,000 VA employees emphasizing that the department would protect whistle-blowers against intimidation or retaliation.

After Ruell testified, Rep. Michael Fitzpatrick, a Bucks County Republican who was invited to sit on the committee as a guest member Monday night, said she was "owed an apology" from the VA.

But Rep. Chaka Fattah, a Philadelphia Democrat whose district includes the city's VA hospital in University City and the office in Germantown, questioned Ruell's allegations, specifically that the drop in the backlog is manufactured.

"I'm not going to question her credibility," he said, "other than just to say there's another side."

The allegations of cooking the books in the Philadelphia facility are similar to those voiced at many of the nation's VA hospitals, where staff have said they were pressured to hide long wait times for appointments.

Philadelphia's VA hospital and a clinic it runs in Horsham were flagged for further scrutiny of their appointment-setting practices in a VA audit released last month. Administrators at the hospital have said they do not expect willful manipulation of data to be found and suggested faulty bookkeeping might be to blame.


tnadolny@phillynews.com610-313-8205 @TriciaNadolny

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