Baltimore VA office mismanaged thousands of documents, claims folders

Tuesday - 7/15/2014, 12:05pm EDT

By Dena Levitz
Federal News Radio

Major management lapses at the Baltimore Veterans Affairs Regional Office led to the mishandling of thousands of sensitive documents and slowed the processing of benefits claims for veterans, according to a new inspector general's report.

The July 10 report chronicles several inadequate mail management controls at the regional office in safeguarding important paperwork.

For one, a supervisor was found to have inappropriately stockpiled about 8,000 documents and claims folders for 80 veterans. Additionally, desk audits revealed about 1,500 documents, which contained personally identifiable information (PII) about veterans, were improperly stored in employees' individual work spaces.

Together that means 9,500 documents and 80 claims folders were not properly handled and, therefore, claims were not processed in a timely manner, according to the IG's findings.

"Most of the documents reviewed contained PII and consisted of processed and unprocessed claims-related mail with the potential to affect benefits payments," the report states. "Some veterans claims found in the supervisor's office required additional processing actions to finalize rating decisions or award benefits payments."

The acting director's discovery

The IG report came as a result of a June complaint by the acting director of the Baltimore VARO, who alerted the IG about loose documents related to veterans floating around the office. The acting director specifically mentioned the 8,000 documents and 80 claims folders found in a supervisor's office. And then, an extra check by office management revealed the other 1,500 documents containing sensitive personal details about veterans scattered in employees' individual work stations.

To check on the allegations leveled, the IG dispatched a team of inspectors to scour the Baltimore office from June 21-27. The team substantiated all of the claims, according to the report.

The IG found the problems partially stemmed from the fact that Baltimore office managers were not performing quarterly desk audits of staff members' workspaces, which is mandatory. Also, there was an overall lack of accountability, according to the findings.

"Generally, these conditions occurred because the VARO did not use available controls to ensure efficient and effective claims management," the report states.

Enhanced training, controls recommended

Along with the diagnosis of the problem, Linda Halliday, assistant inspector general for audits and evaluations in the VA's IG office, also made a handful of recommendations to improve conditions in the Baltimore regional office of the VA. Her recommendations came in the form of a letter addressed to Allison Hickey, the under secretary for benefits at the VA. The recommendations are:

  • To implement a plan to control the approximately 9,500 documents and 80 claims folders mentioned
  • To ensure Baltimore VA Regional staff receive refresher training on proper mail handling procedures
  • To retrain staff on workload management
  • To conduct quarterly desk audits at the Baltimore Regional Office, and
  • To assess the impact mismanaged documents had on the delivery of benefits

In response, Hickey concurred with the recommendations, provided what the IG considered "an acceptable corrective action plan," and quickly responded to ensure the mail was processed.

Hickey's letter gives an August 31 deadline to provide refresher training on proper mail handling processes, and September 30 as a target for controlling the mismanaged documents and claims folders. And as a completion date for workload management training, Hickey lists December 30—to fully review the impact on benefits delivery. A schedule for quarterly desk audits has already been developed, Hickey's letter states.

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