An investigator who oversees the Veterans Affairs Department said during a hearing Tuesday that he doesn't fully trust the agency's recent assertion that it has substantially reduced the backlog of benefit claims.
Brent Arronte, the VA's deputy assistant inspector general for audits and evaluations, also said he suspects there may be a systemic problem of data integrity at VA field offices across the country.
“I would say right now it's safe to say we're not out of the woods,” he said.
The VA said at the end of 2015 that it had a backlog of about 75,000 cases, which is nearly a 90% reduction from a high of about 612,000 cases in 2013. That is thanks largely to the implementation of the automated Veterans Benefits Management System, which replaced a pen and paper method of processing claims in 2012.
Arronte said the VA's Office of Inspector General has uncovered several instances of data manipulation, however, and that means that claims about reducing the backlog cannot be substantiated.
Beth McCoy, deputy undersecretary for field operations at the VA, disputed the allegation, saying the data systems now are more robust and transparent, and there is not substantial data manipulation.
“We are much better off and veterans are much better off,” she said.
Members of the House Veterans Affairs Committee grilled VA officials about whether anyone has been held accountable or disciplined for the backlog and what has been done with the extra funding and employees that was provided to help eliminate it.
Chairman Jeff Miller of Florida said the VA continues to ask for more money without giving deadlines or final cost estimates for projects. He referred to a recent VA OIG report (PDF) that found thousands of backlogged mail packages at a regional office in St. Petersburg, Fla. The report states the documents were disorganized, not secured and not ready to be scanned.
Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) said the VA has a culture of “bureaucratic incompetence” and he would like to see someone brought to task for the mismanagement and cost overruns.
Also Tuesday, the nominee for the new permanent inspector general with the VA is being reviewed by a Senate committee. The post is responsible for investigating the agency.