Oakland VA office
botched benefits, forgot about claims
The U.S. Department of Veterans
Affairs’ regional office in Oakland shoved thousands of
compensation and disability claims into a filing cabinet
without processing them, leaving many veterans or their
surviving family members without needed benefits, the
agency’s inspector general said in a report issued
The claims, which dated back as
far as the mid-1990s, were discovered in 2012 as a national
scandal erupted over the VA’s sloppy and slow handling of
benefits, which outraged veterans.
The report said the office in
2012 counted 13,184 informal claims for benefits that had
been found in the cabinet, with 2,155 requiring “review or
action.” Those files were assigned to a special team, the
report said, but later, in spring 2014, office workers found
a cart of the claims that the team had reviewed but failed
to act upon.
“Management determined staff
had not taken action on these informal claims as required,”
the report stated. Inspectors quoted staffers as saying that
processing the claims discovered in the cabinet “was not a
priority” in the office.
When the inspector general’s
office visited for a two-week probe in July, it learned the
office had created a spreadsheet after 537 unprocessed
claims were found in the cart. But the office had created no
paper trail for the larger cache of claims. Inspectors
couldn’t verify they had been taken care of due to
“management’s poor record-keeping practices,” the report
The Oakland office, which
reviews claims for Northern California veterans, “did not
maintain adequate records and provide the oversight needed
to ensure timely processing and storage of these informal
claims,” the report said. “As a result, veterans did not
receive consideration for benefits to which they may have
An informal claim is defined as
any communication — from a veteran or their representative —
that indicates an intent to apply for VA benefits. Employees
at regional offices, once they receive an informal request,
are required to send the veteran a formal application. The
date an informal request is received is then used to mark
the effective date of claim once the official claim is
The inspector general’s report
said the 537 unprocessed claims were discovered on the cart
only because the office was undergoing a construction
project. Inspectors looked at a sample of 34 of those and
reported finding seven that needed processing — even though
they had been “repeatedly reviewed” from 2012 to 2014.
One request investigators
reviewed showed that a veteran seeking treatment for
post-traumatic stress disorder was shorted almost $3,000
because his informal claim was never processed. His date of
claim should have been July 2002 rather than November 2002.
He had lost four months of benefits.
Vet was underpaid $1,200
Another veteran, seeking
treatment for hearing loss and tinnitus, was underpaid about
$1,200, the report said, because his formal claim was
approved 10 months after his informal claim was received and
Referring to the other five
claims that needed processing, the report said neither the
VA nor the inspector general’s office “can determine
entitlements to disability benefits without the veterans
submitting formal applications. As a result, the veterans
may not have received timely consideration for benefits to
which they were entitled.”
(Butte County), had requested the inspector general’s review
after a group of whistle-blowers came forward with
information about the hidden claims.
He said Wednesday that he was
disappointed in the report’s recommendations — that the
Oakland office process the 537 claims found in the cart,
institute more training and implement an oversight plan.
“The accountability for why
these things happen doesn’t have any clear conclusion,”
LaMalfa said. “They say all these files were missing, but
there’s not enough information to confirm what’s wrong.
That’s a self-perpetuating nonsolution. You need to step
back and figure out why the information is not there or
founder of the veterans advocacy group Veteran Warriors,
said she was concerned that inspectors accepted the Oakland
office’s assertion that only 2,155 of the 13,184 claims in
the cabinet required action or review
Under federal law, the VA not
only has to “notify the claimant of any information or
evidence necessary to substantiate the claim,” but make
“reasonable efforts to assist a claimant in obtaining
evidence necessary’’ to substantiate the claim.
Need to contact every vet
“According to the law, every
single one of them needed to be verified and every veteran
needed to be contacted,” Price said.
She added, “They’re just
basically taking the leadership’s word for it, that 11,000
of them were junk. We’re just going to keep taking their
word for it when they covered this up for two years?”
LaMalfa said he was pleased the
claims in the cart were being processed, but concerned about
the 12,647 other informal claims supposedly found in the
cabinet, and whether or not the veterans who filed those
claims got the help they needed.
“Who is looking out for the
veterans?” he asked.
The Oakland office’s response
to the inspector general’s findings was included in the
report. Julianna Boor, the Oakland regional director, said
she concurred with the recommendations, and noted that the
staff had received training on the proper procedures for
processing informal claims in June and October of 2014.
She said the office, after a
transition in December, now routes all mail through a
scanning vendor to be converted into an electronic file to
accurately track informal claims.
Boor did not address how or why
so many informal claims had been cast aside for so long. A
representative from the VA office in Oakland did not
immediately return calls for comment Wednesday.
The office, which serves
veterans from Bakersfield to the Oregon border, has a
history of backlogged claims and accuracy issues in
processing those claims. Nationwide, officials have come
under fire for lying to federal investigators and doctoring
waiting lists for veterans seeking help.
Vivian Ho is a San Francisco
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