By Chris Adams
The Department of Veterans Affairs office that handles disability cases for Florida didn't properly process claims _ in some cases overpaying and in others shortchanging the state's veterans, according to a recent report.
A report from the department's inspector general found that the regional office in St. Petersburg, Fla., did not consistently process two types of disability claims the office reviewed, inaccurately handling 19 percent of the small sample reviewed.
A total of 90 claims were reviewed, with 17 in error; because of it, 54 improper monthly payments were made to seven individual veterans.
While the numbers aren't large, the regular review from the inspector general highlighted ongoing problems in claims processing at the VA, something that has bedeviled the department for years, with high backlogs and error rates plaguing a system swamped with claims.
In recent months, the VA has made significant progress in reducing its backlog, both nationwide and in the St. Petersburg office, which handles disability claims for all Florida counties and is one of the largest of the VA's 56 nationwide.
From an average processing time of 252 days in early 2013, average claim-processing time in St. Petersburg dropped to 160 last year and 109 days today, according to regional office director Kerrie Witty.
"We're getting better every day, and more responsive to (veterans') claims _ and that's only going to continue," she said in an interview Monday. "I don't foresee anything that's going to make that get anything but better."
Witty said the regional office has substantially improved its processes in recent years, meaning it is better equipped to handle the problems pointed out by the inspector general.
The inspection report was part of the inspector general's ongoing review process of regional offices throughout the country, and it selected certain potentially problematic types of claims. That 19 percent of claims were inaccurately processed does not mean the universe of St. Petersburg claims are wrong 19 percent of the time; in fact, the office said its VA-calculated accuracy rate is about 90 percent, in line with national averages.
In response to the inspector general's report, the St. Petersburg office and the VA's central office in Washington said it would make the necessary changes to its processing system. The St. Petersburg office also undertook a review of more than 1,700 claims similar to those reviewed by the inspector general to see whether there were problems in those as well.
The inspector general reviewed 90 claims in three categories of disability compensation.
Of the 90, seven were handled incorrectly and had affected veterans' benefits, while 10 were handled incorrectly and had the potential to affect benefits.
But an inaccurate claim didn't necessarily mean veterans were harmed. Among the claims reviewed, for example, were those for "temporary 100 percent disability," which certain veterans are entitled to after surgery or other treatment. At the end of treatment, however, the VA is supposed to review a veteran's status to see if they still qualify for this higher monthly benefit.
As an example of how errors occur, the inspector general said a veteran was notified in February 2014 of a proposed reduction to his temporary 100 percent benefit. The staff didn't take action to actually reduce it until November of that year, leading to five months of extra payments. The overpayment in that case was $8,500, the report said.