In Phila. visit, VA official pledges change

Posted: July 30, 2014

A top Veterans Affairs administrator visited Philadelphia's VA regional office in Germantown on Monday and pledged that the agency is addressing the mistakes that led to long delays for veterans seeking benefits.

Allison Hickey, undersecretary for benefits at the Department of Veterans Affairs, also acknowledged that staff at the center had misinterpreted a policy that allowed them to alter dates on old claims so they appeared new, one of several discoveries that led to an ongoing investigation at the center, according to two congressmen who met with her for about 90 minutes Monday morning.

Hickey also talked with employees during the visit, according to the center's director, but did not appear at an ensuing news briefing with U.S. Reps. Patrick Meehan and Mike Fitzpatrick, both Pennsylvania Republicans.

"The statement here was a mea culpa. They made a mistake and that they are trying to rectify it," Meehan said.

Her visit came as lawmakers in Washington prepared Monday to announce new steps to reform the beleaguered veterans agency.

Meehan said the VA Office of Inspector General is expected to release within the next month its findings on the city's VA facility, which processes benefits claims for parts of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware, and also houses one of the nation's three VA pension management centers.

The office is investigating allegations that employees there have processed easy claims first to inflate performance numbers, shredded important mail from vets, and manipulated data to make the backlog of claims appear smaller. Hickey offered to visit the Philadelphia facility and give Meehan a tour and briefing during a June 14 hearing of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs at which the allegations were aired.

Also Monday, Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.) released a letter sent to Sloan Gibson, acting secretary of the VA, calling the allegations out of Philadelphia "deeply disturbing.

"I would like to know how the veteran community can be assured that their disability claims are being properly handled and resolved in a timely manner," he wrote.

VA officials have said dates were changed on some claims at the Philadelphia office due to a misunderstanding of a systemwide policy and were not an intentional attempt to hide the backlog.

Meehan said the policy seemed straightforward to him, but did not say whether, after meeting with Hickey, he believes the manipulation was deliberate.

He said that "regardless of what the intention was," the allegations are of concern because they could mean delays for veterans.

Diana Rubens, who became the center's director July 14, also attended the meeting and said afterward that old mail and claims recently found in boxes at the center had not been neglected and were either for completed cases or considered nonessential correspondence.

"It is a complex process," she said. "And I think that's where some of the confusion has come. I hope that as we continue to dialogue, we will continue to improve the understanding."

tnadolny@phillynews.com610-313-8205 TriciaNadolny

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