Acting on an anonymous allegation that staff members at the Roanoke VA Regional Office were falsifying data to meet production goals, the VA Office of Inspector General (OIG) initiated an investigation in 2016. On December 5, 2017, the OIG released its report, confirming that staff had manipulated records to give the false impression they were managing appeals in a timely and efficient manner. Although the OIG report concludes that “most” veterans were not harmed, the longstanding practice at the Roanoke VARO “impaired VA’s ability to monitor and manage” appeal records.
Essentially what the staff at the Roanoke VARO did was to merge separate appeals from the same veteran appellant into a single appeal file, improperly closing the merged issues and falsely noting the appellant had withdrawn those appeals. Although the issues stayed alive in the new file, the records seemed to reflect that issues had been resolved.
The system, which appears to have evolved over time, benefited VARO staff, who created an illusion of efficiency that qualified them for performance bonuses. However, veterans were not helped, and a small number may have been harmed when appeals were marked as “withdrawn” but were not “merged.”
Fortunately, the OIG discovered the problem and in two cases restored appeals that had gotten lost in the shuffle. Otherwise, those veterans would never have gotten decisions on their appeals. The OIG investigation also resulted in the cancellation of performance bonuses at the Roanoke VARO for fiscal year 2016.
The OIG report recommends that the “Director confer with Regional Counsel to determine what steps to take, if any, with regard to management or staff involved in the conduct discussed in this report.” That could mean legal action and even criminal charges, although the OIG did not discover criminal intent. The report noted that “While the appeals managers knew of the practice, they were unaware of its full impact. Furthermore, the quality review team manager had been told this was a best practice by a former appeals manager.”
The complex and inefficient nature of the VA appeals process has been under fire for years, so it’s not surprising that managers under pressure to deliver results would experiment with workarounds. But rogue actions that deliver a monetary benefit to VA staff while disadvantaging veterans cannot be tolerated.
Attorneys at Marcari, Russotto, Spencer & Balaban have more than 200 years of combined legal experience. The firm handles appeals of VA disability claims throughout the United States. For more information, call 866-866-VETS or contact our office online.
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