The Atlanta VA repeatedly makes errors in calculating benefits for disabled veterans, resulting in overpayments to some and underpayments to others, according to an audit released Tuesday.
More than one in three of the 90 disability claims reviewed were incorrectly processed, according to the audit by the VA Office of Inspector General. Auditors noted that they reviewed only cases they felt had a high risk of error, so the results do not represent the overall accuracy of claims processed by the Veterans Benefits Administration office in Atlanta.
Still, the inspectors could not assure that the office was in proper compliance with four of the five performance benchmarks they surveyed.
The problems angered veterans and advocates who say they depend on the VA to provide the correct amount of money to veterans who’ve suffered significant injuries in the service to their country.
Many of these veterans are catastrophically disabled. Some have injuries that hamper their employment opportunities, so they are struggling financially, said Drew Early, an Atlanta attorney and veteran who represents vets fighting for more accurate benefits.
“Some of these veterans have traumatic brain injury. Who do they depend on to get it right? They depend on the VA,” said Early. “It’s just ugly business.”
Veterans who receive underpayments may never know they deserved more, said Early. Veterans who receive overpayments often get tagged with a giant bill down the line when the VA catches up to the problem.
The audit attributed the VA workers’ errors to poor training, lax oversight and problems with scheduling medical appointments that assess a veteran’s condition. The problems also led to numerous delays in the payment of benefits to veterans. In at least one case, the veteran was denied benefits.
Auditors also noted an inability of the Atlanta regional benefits office to fix problems identified in previous audits.
“We concluded the (benefits office) did not fully implement corrective actions they agreed to take in response to our 2011 inspection report,” auditors noted.
U.S. Rep. David Scott, D-Atlanta, said his office regularly hears from veterans appealing decisions about disability payments.
“It is unfair for them to not receive the right payment due to errors,” Scott said. “I urge the VA management to get a handle on these cases right away to cut down on these mistakes.”
The office reviewed in the audit is one of 56 Veterans Benefits Administration regional offices across the country that process disability claims and provide other support services to veterans. It is a separate from the Veterans Health Administration, which includes the VA Atlanta Medical Center. The health care system of VA has been plagued by national scandal this year because of long patient wait times and manipulation of hospital records to mask the problems.
Nationally, the VA has also come under fire for a huge backlog of claims for disability benefits. In a rush to cut that backlog, the VA has been making payments to tens of thousands of veterans without medical evidence that they deserve the benefits, according to a separate audit.
In one case noted in Tuesday’s audit, a VA medical examination report provided conflicting information about a veteran’s possible memory loss. Instead of resolving the issue, the staff at the benefits office denied the veteran’s claim for benefits.
One veteran with multiple disabilities lost $19,154 over a period of nearly four years that was due the veteran because of an administrative error.
In four cases involving overpayments, the VA overpaid veterans totaling $139,052.
Most of the processing mistakes resulted from a lack of management oversight, the auditors concluded.
The leadership at the regional benefits office didn’t agree with auditors’ findings in many of the cases reviewed, but concurred with all of the inspector general’s recommendations for correcting the problems the audit identified.
Auditors also blamed management for not ensuring the claims processing staff received enough training, which led to errors in processing special monthly claims. In those cases reviewed, nearly one in three claims were incorrectly processed. Those problems resulted in 185 improper payments totaling $238,738 over a seven year period.
One veteran stricken with a cardiovascular condition was shortchanged $23,189 over a nine month period because an employee assigned the wrong date to his claim. Another veteran was overpaid $202,447 over a period of more than seven years in a case because the veteran was assigned a higher disability rating than they deserved based on the veteran’s condition, auditors found.
Early said the agency has repayed veterans who were underpaid and sought to reclaim money that was overpaid.
The audit’s findings did not surprise Victoria Patryla. The Lilburn resident has been working with veterans as a volunteer for decades and has witnessed repeated problems across the VA that never seem to get corrected.
She knows veterans who’ve been waiting for months for benefits to be processed. She knows one who died waiting for his claim to go through.
“I think there’s so much brokenness,” Patryla said. “There’s so much lack of accountability. I think it’s beyond repair. I think they have to take a hose and wash it down and start all over again.”
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AJC reporter Daniel Malloy contributed to this report