By Cathy Bussewitz, Associated Press
HONOLULU (AP) — A supervisor at the Veterans Administration office in Honolulu was manipulating data to make it look like the agency was processing veterans’ benefits claims faster it actually was, according to a new report by the VA Office of Inspector General.
The data manipulation happened last year when there was heightened scrutiny nationwide over how long veterans were waiting to see doctors.
The electronic records altered in Honolulu dealt with benefits claims, not medical appointments. But the finding underscores that there are ongoing problems within the system.
The Honolulu supervisor was removing controls in the electronic record that are used to track and identify the progress of claims.
“It made his performance measures for his team look better than they actually were,” said Brent Arronte, director of the San Diego Benefits Inspection Division of the VA Office of Inspector General.
Those data manipulations resulted in delays for the delivery of benefits to veterans, including benefits like payments for dependents, Arronte said.
There has been no indication that the manipulation was particularly widespread, but it wasn’t unique. “We haven’t seen this at all 57 regional offices. We have seen it at a few. I think four additional ones aside from Honolulu,” he said.
The Hawaii investigation was originally prompted by the Honolulu VA Regional Office, which asked the inspectors to review 147 cases from April through August 2014 in which it was believed the supervisor had removed the controls used to track claims. The inspectors reviewed 139 of those – because the others were located at a different facility – and found that the supervisor inappropriately manipulated the records in 100 of the cases, a rate of about 72 percent.
The Office of Inspector General then reviewed another 48 cases selected at random and found that the supervisor had removed the controls in 43 claims – nearly 90 percent of those records.
Each claim corresponds to an individual person, so there were 143 veterans known to be affected, although the extent of the impact wasn’t yet known, Arronte said. Since 90 percent of the randomly selected records were manipulated, the actual number of affected veterans could be much higher.
“If anybody was harmed, they’re going to fix it,” Arronte said.
The Honolulu Regional Office worked closely with the inspectors to address areas addressed in the report and took corrective actions on all cases that were improperly processed, said Patrick Zondervan, acting director of the VA Regional Office Honolulu, in an email.
The supervisor in question has resigned, the report said.
Elisa Smithers, a member of the Hawaii Army National Guard and veteran of combat tours in Iraq and Kuwait, said she knows soldiers in Hawaii who are having issues with benefit delays. But her experiences with the VA system have improved since the summer, when she and others testified about problems getting medical care.
The claims inventory in Honolulu – which includes disability compensation and pension claims that need a decision from the VA – was reduced from 6,059 in January 2013 to 2,692 this week, according to Zondervan’s office. Veterans with a pending claim in Honolulu are waiting on average 227 days less for a decision than those that were waiting in March 2013, he said.