Fixing a computer "glitch" in Department of Veterans Affairs computers apparently did not solve a billion-dollar over-payments problem because electronic gadgetry was not enough to make workers do their jobs, according to the agency's inspector general.
Claims processors in the Cheyenne, Wyo., Veteran's Service Center made mistakes in 79 percent of the cases involving temporary disability ratings that were reviewed by the IG, according to the report released today.
The reason is they failed to schedule follow-up medical examinations to determine whether veterans receiving full disability benefits because of temporary medical conditions, such as surgery, were fit to return to work.
This is not a new problem at VA. Two years ago, the IG issued a report concluding improper processing of the temporary disability claims had already cost taxpayers almost $1 billion in improper payments since 1993, and would cost $1.1 billion more over five years if left uncorrected.
VA officials claimed in congressional hearings the problem was a "glitch" in its computer system that failed to generate what amounts to an email alert when the patient was due for a new exam.
They initially promised to fix the glitch by September 2011, but repeatedly delayed implementation after additional bugs were found. The glitch was supposedly fixed in July 2012.
Claims workers in Cheyenne were receiving the alerts, but simply did not schedule the follow-up exams as required, according to the new report. Workers told investigators they didn't understand what to do once they received the notifications.
A 2010 inspection of the Cheyenne office identified similar problem with temporary disability cases, which VA managers claimed at the time they would fix by the end of the year.
Despite additional training of claims processors, the 2012 audit found they continued to make errors in most cases "because staff did not take action upon reminder notification to schedule the reexaminations as required."
IG investigators also made it clear they are not impressed with the pace of VA's efforts to fix the problem nationally.
"We are concerned about the lack of urgency in completing this review, which is critical to minimizing the financial risks of making inaccurate benefits payments," the IG concluded.
At the time of the IG's inspection in September, the Cheyenne office had 197 overdue alerts for medical exams, including one that had been pending for almost 2.5 years.
The audit was conducted last September, but examined cases through July 10, 2012, so it's possible the changes in the computer system were not fully implemented there when the cases were originally processed.
Catherine Gromek, spokeswoman for the agency's IG, said cases are pulled from the prior fiscal quarter during an inspection, so changes made in July probably would not have shown up in the Cheyenne results.
The effectiveness of those changes should begin showing up in reviews currently being conducted, she said.
VA officials responding to the IGs findings said they are implementing new procedures in they Cheyenne office to ensure follow-up exams are scheduled, but did not give details. They expect those changes to be fully implemented by the end of this month.
The "glitch" is one of many problems at the VA identified in a five-part series dealing with the backlog of disability claims published last week by The Washington Examiner.
Veterans seeking disability payments for injuries or illnesses tied to their military service typically wait years for a decision from VA, often because of mistakes made in initial rating decisions.
More than 1 million veterans have disability and pension claims or appeals pending at the VA. Go here to read the IG report on the Cheyenne center.
Mark flatten is a member of The Washington Examiner's Watchdog investigative reporting team. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.