A sign in front of the Veterans Affairs building in Washington, D.C. Photo by Karen Gleier/Getty Images

House panel expands probe into how Veterans Affairs handled disability and pension claims

WASHINGTON — A House committee voted Thursday to issue a subpoena of the Department of Veterans Affairs for personnel and complaint files at its Philadelphia office, part of an expanding probe into mishandling of veterans’ disability and pensions claims.

Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Veterans Affairs committee, said his panel has repeatedly asked for the information since last December with limited success from VA Secretary Robert McDonald and other officials as it digs into allegations of leadership misconduct and whistleblower retaliation. It was only the third time in the committee’s history that lawmakers resorted to a subpoena, a sign of continuing impatience with a department still struggling after last year’s health scandal involving the Phoenix VA medical center.

The last time subpoenas were issued was last May, when the committee demanded documents in that Phoenix scandal relating to lengthy wait times and falsified records.

“I have not come to this moment lightly,” Miller said. “There is no doubt that there are serious issues plaguing the operations of the Philadelphia regional office, and we can no longer afford to allow the VA to stonewall legitimate requests for information about that or about any other VA facility.”

Miller said that after repeated requests the VA responded late Wednesday with three discs containing documents, but that they remained incomplete with large portions redacted.

The motion for a subpoena was approved by voice vote with no objections. Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Fla., the top Democrat on the panel, did not attend because of a schedule conflict with another committee.

The subpoena seeks all documents and communications in the Philadelphia office relating to matters investigated or pending before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or the Merit Systems Protection Board from Dec. 31, 2008, to present. The committee said it was probing allegations of employee mistreatment.

Responding, the VA released a letter to Miller dated Wednesday in which McDonald expresses confusion over the planned subpoena vote, saying the department had offered to make available the full, unredacted information if the committee agreed to certain privacy conditions. The VA secretary wrote that the material involved employee grievances often provided with the expectation of confidentiality and that it was redacting information such as Social Security numbers, home addresses and bank accounts considered not necessary for the committee’s investigation.

McDonald said the VA had devoted as many as seven employees full-time to gathering the voluminous material and began providing much of it earlier this month. “A subpoena is a needless and unhelpful step that unnecessarily erodes the confidence of veterans and the American people,” he said.

In a scathing audit this month, the VA’s inspector general confirmed a litany of problems first raised by whistleblowers in Philadelphia. They included mishandled or neglected mail, manipulation of dates to make old claims look new and millions of dollars in duplicate benefit payments, part of a department-wide rush to reduce backlogs. The report said it took an average of 312 days for VA employees to respond to inquiries; the department has a five-day standard for response.

The IG has since expanded its review of Philadelphia to two senior leaders for potential misuse of position.

The VA launched an internal review of the Philadelphia facility that is due to be completed in June, pledging the “harshest action” against employees who intentionally violated policies and mulling department-wide changes. It also has called for additional money to hire claims processors.

Described by the VA as one of its largest, the Philadelphia office oversees the administration of benefits to 900,000 veterans in eastern Pennsylvania, southern New Jersey and Delaware. The site also houses a Pension Management Center, one of three in the nation.