Despite extensive training, greater scrutiny from lawmakers and over $1 million of extra state aid, the accuracy of disability claims processing at the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Waco regional office is getting worse, according to a report issued Tuesday by the department’s office of inspector general.
Investigators found that 40 percent of the claims they sampled had been incorrectly processed by VA workers, compared with 36 percent of sampled claims in a 2010 inspection.
The report also found a slight increase in errors in processing claims of traumatic brain injury, caused by concussive blasts to the skull and often referred to by military leaders as the signature wound of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. In 2010, inspectors found eight errors in the 30 claims they sampled; during their return visit in January, they found 9 errors in 30 claims.
After the 2010 report, inspectors recommended increased training for VA staffers, which they received in April 2011 and May 2012, according to the report. Despite the yearly training, inspectors found that “staff were still unaware of some of the more complex policies for rating TBI claims. Some staff felt the TBI training they received did not prepare them to process these types of cases, indicating that the training was ineffective.”
Once again, inspectors on Tuesday recommended additional training, as well as a plan to monitor its effectiveness.
VA officials at the Waco office, which is one of two VA claims offices in the state and which serves Central Texas veterans, didn’t respond to a request for comment late Tuesday afternoon.
Paul Sullivan, veterans outreach director for the Bergmann and Moore law firm in Maryland, said the VA needs to dig deeper to find out why accuracy problems persist despite the enhanced training.
Waco’s overall accuracy rate is slightly below the VA average nationwide, according to department reports.
But the office is among the worst when it comes to the pace of processing claims. Last year, state and federal officials called for change when it was the slowest office in the nation with an average wait time of 393 days. The Waco office no longer holds that distinction, even as its average wait grew to 464 days. It has been eclipsed by several offices, including Los Angeles, where the average processing time is a whopping 620 days.
The latest performance report comes after Texas officials have spent more than $1.5 million to develop teams of state employees located in the Waco and Houston VA regional offices and medical centers to work on the most complicated and severely backlogged cases.
Since the teams were created, the number of pending claims in Waco has fallen by 25 percent, and the Texas Legislature recently approved an additional $4 million for the effort through 2015.
The new report also found 50 percent error rates among claims for a temporary 100 percent disability rating, typically awarded after a surgery or during a specific treatment. In many of those cases, follow-up medical exams weren’t scheduled, resulting in overpayments to veterans.
Inspectors did find that the Waco office is doing an effective job of addressing Persian Gulf War veterans’ access to mental health treatment and conducting outreach to homeless veterans.