Federal review criticizes Anchorage VA office

Rosemary Shinohara

Federal inspectors have given the Anchorage Veterans Administration Regional Office a poor review for its handling of Alaska veterans' disability claims, citing lack of quality control and a 29 percent error rate that in some cases resulted in veterans being underpaid, facing unnecessary delays in obtaining benefits, or being initially denied services they might be entitled to.

Inspectors from the VA Office of Inspector General said the Anchorage office failed to meet requirements in 13 of 14 areas covered in an inspection last year.

The mistakes affect veterans claiming military-service-connected disabilities for conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder, diabetes and traumatic brain injury.

Supervisors of the Anchorage office acknowledge that the problems in Alaska go beyond general stress on the veterans' benefit system that is occurring nationally.

But they say they believe they are well on the way toward fixing them.

Alaska had the highest number of veterans per capita of any state as of the last census, at nearly 18 percent of the population.

The VA Benefits Administration decides whether a veteran qualifies for monthly compensation, often several hundred dollars per month, for ongoing disabilities that first occurred or were aggravated during military service. The system nationwide has been overwhelmed in recent years with an influx of claims from veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, plus aging veterans from earlier conflicts such as Vietnam. CBS reported on "60 Minutes" this month that 1 million veterans are waiting for action on their disability claims.

But problems in the Anchorage regional office exceed the norm, according to Willie C. Clark Sr., western area director of the Veterans Benefits Administration in Phoenix, whose purview includes Alaska.

Clark is among the VA directors and managers following up on the inspector general's report issued Dec. 7, and he visited the Anchorage office this month to check on progress.

IS STAFFING ADEQUATE?

In written responses to questions from the Daily News, Clark said the Anchorage office suffered from turnover in key positions during the past year, and its performance doesn't "currently compare favorably" to other regional offices.

The Anchorage office is directed remotely by the head of the Salt Lake City VA Regional Office. It has a position for an on-site manager in Anchorage under supervision of Salt Lake, but the manager position went unfilled for eight months, until May.

The inspectors said lack of an on-site manager contributed to the quality gaps, and that training that should have taken place for staffers didn't happen much of the time.

Clark believes the Anchorage office is quickly improving. "We have action plans in place to correct all of the deficiencies identified" in the inspection report. "The Anchorage performance has greatly improved over the past several months and is on track to have a very good performance year in 2010."

Tammy Schuyler, president of the AFGE Local 3028 union that represents Alaska VA workers, sees it differently: Significant problems have yet to been resolved, she said.

The office is still understaffed and there is still not enough training and a high turnover rate. The most serious issue, Schuyler said, is "the fact that we have a lack of staff all around -- trained staff. It takes two years to fully train somebody in this job."

MANY MISTAKES

Some errors involved complicated medical questions, some were procedural mistakes, and some were just failure to follow through.

For example:

• A veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder was underpaid by $4,758 because staff dated his or her benefits to the date the office received the claim rather than properly to the day the veteran was discharged from active duty.

• Claims reviewers in one case acknowledged a veteran's diabetes was service-related, but improperly excluded complications of the diabetes -- high blood pressure and retinopathy, deterioration of the retina that can lead to loss of vision. The veteran can't get VA health care for those conditions until the regional office acknowledges they are connected to the veteran's military service, the auditors said.

• When quality-control reviewers in the Anchorage office did find mistakes and ordered them to be corrected, in 42 percent of cases the inspector general's office reviewed, the mistakes were not corrected. In one case, a veteran was underpaid $5,397 for a service-connected sleeping disorder for which compensation had been wrongly denied, the inspectors said.

Besides specific errors, the evaluators cited other quality-control issues -- personal information about vets lying around where it shouldn't be, poor tracking of where claims were, and lax handling of claims-related mail.

Nearly 2,000 claims Anchorage couldn't get to were sent off to Boise and other Outside offices to handle, and that made them harder to track, the inspectors said.

ANCHORAGE HEARING PLANNED

Both of Alaska's U.S. senators have been paying attention to the concerns raised.

Just after the report was released, Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, sent a letter to Veterans Affairs Secretary Erik Shinseki, in which he called the findings "troubling" and asked Shinseki to immediately address them. Begich, a member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, has scheduled a committee field hearing at 10:30 a.m. Feb. 16 at Loussac Library in Anchorage to hear what's being done.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski's office said she first heard of problems in November 2007 when union leaders told her caseloads were growing, and quality of service was taking a backseat to productivity.

"There was evidence at the time that VA management was taking a 'shoot the messenger' approach to employees who suggested to management that things needed to be done better," says a statement from the Alaska Republican's spokesman Michael Brumas. "Rather than improve service at the Anchorage level it appears that the VA simply allowed problems to fester and brokered the claims of Alaska's veterans out to other offices."

Murkowski believes there have been improvements, particularly with hiring of two supervisors, but says she still questions whether the regional director for Anchorage should live and work out of Salt Lake City, and will demand a "bottoms-up review of whether the office is adequately staffed."

COMPARISON TO IDAHO

There appears to be a difference of opinion on that point -- whether Anchorage lacks sufficient staff to do the job properly.

Patrick Kelley, the new manager in Anchorage, told the inspectors the local office had fewer staffers than other Veteran's regional offices with a similar workload.

The Boise office, for example, had 47 staffers, or 22 more full-time positions than Anchorage at the time of the inspection, while each office was dealing with around 1,900 claims.

But Clark, the western area director, says the Anchorage office is now properly staffed, with the appointment of a couple of new supervisors, even though it is still 23 employees short of what Boise has. The veteran population in Idaho is about 136,500 compared to 76,000 in Alaska, he said.

Schuyler, the union president, said the number of veterans in each state isn't what counts -- it's how many claims are pending in each place, and the volume of work in Anchorage is, in fact, equivalent to Boise.

Find Rosemary Shinohara online at adn.com/contact/rshinohara or call her at 257-4340.


By ROSEMARY SHINOHARA
rshinohara@adn.com