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UPDATE: Audit finds mismanaged claims at St. Louis VA

Friday, July 25, 2014 | 2:53 p.m. CDT

ST. LOUIS — A federal investigation has found a high rate of mismanaged disability claims at VA medical facilities in St. Louis.

A U.S. Office of the Inspector General report released Thursday found that the St. Louis veterans' benefits office mishandled one-third of the disability claims it processes — qualified veterans were paid too much as well as too little.

The report shows an average benefits claim at the downtown St. Louis regional benefits office has been pending for 171 days, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported. That's about two months above the Veterans Benefits Administration target.

The 815-employee office is one of more than 50 regional VA benefit offices where 12,373 compensation claims await processing. The system, which includes the John Cochran and Jefferson Barracks hospitals and various clinics, has the fifth-longest wait time for new specialty appointments out of 141 health systems in the country, according to a separate audit released earlier this year.

S. Nick Nickens, acting director of the St. Louis office regional office, agreed with the federal investigators' recommendations on how to improve performance.

Earlier this week, the acting secretary of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs vowed to crack down on whistleblower retaliation during a speech to the national convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars in St. Louis.

The St. Louis office handles pension and education benefits, employment assistance and counseling for veterans.

The investigation examined more complicated benefits claims, meaning the office's overall performance might be better than the report shows. Most of the inaccurate disability claims were caused by employees delaying scheduling exams for an average of nine months; staff attributed the delays to workload demands.

Among the errors cited in the investigation was the case of a veteran incorrectly granted military-related credit for blindness that was actually attributed to heart disease, resulting in a $108,262 overpayment. Another veteran with multiple sclerosis was underpaid $34,009 because all of his disabilities weren't included in the evaluation.

Acting VA secretary Sloan Gibson's Tuesday speech came one day after a private government watchdog released a critical report on the agency's treatment of employees who brought internal problems to light. The government is investigating 67 such claims of retaliation by supervisors at the VA against employee whistleblowers.

Jose Mathews, former chief of psychiatry for the local VA health system, told the federal investigators he uncovered multiple problems in the pension and evaluation system. Matthews said he was recently demoted for the second time after filing a complaint last fall.

 


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