U.S. Sen. Patty Murray is calling for disciplinary action after a Veterans Affairs investigation found that staffers in Seattle dumped mail about vets’ benefits in a yellow bucket and left it for months.
The situation caused the Seattle VA Regional Office to send out letters in 2014 erroneously telling some Puget Sound veterans that they might lose disability benefits.
A report from the VA’s inspector general said the incident pointed to a lack of internal controls across the agency’s regional offices nationwide.
The letters sent in summer 2014 went to veterans deemed unemployable because of service-connected disabilities. They earn specific benefits through the Veterans Benefits Administration.
In order to maintain those benefits, they’re required to fill out and return a yearly employment questionnaire.
This March the VA Office of Inspector General received a complaint alleging that at least a thousand questionnaires were sitting unprocessed and that an employee had been storing them for months in a yellow bucket.
Investigators went to the Seattle VA Regional Office in April and reported that some questionnaires indeed had been stored in a yellow bucket.
In fact, employees at the office were calling it the "Yellow Bucket Project."
Of 132 questionnaires that were examined, investigators said, because of mishandled paperwork 27 veterans were notified they were at risk of benefit reductions. This, the report said, resulted in “undue stress or angst.”
“Untimely processing of employment questionnaires” resulted in unnecessary work and inefficient use of resources, the report said.
Investigators said they didn’t find any cases in which a veteran’s benefits actually were reduced.
Read the inspector general's report below or see it in PDF.
The complaint to the VA inspector general also alleged management took several weeks to respond.
Investigators never substantiated that. And they noted in their report that the director of the Seattle office told staff to immediately process the mail once the situation came to light.
However, they were troubled by an apparent disconnect between claims processing staff and managers who were unaware of the unprocessed mail for months. The report recommended that an administrative board investigate.
In a letter to Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald, Sen. Murray expressed shock at the findings. She called on McDonald to personally oversee change at the Seattle regional office.
"I hope you will agree this situation is entirely unacceptable," Murray wrote. "This is exactly the type of mismanagement and negligence that further complicates the benefits process for veterans, leading to unnecessary stress and unacceptably delaying benefits to which these veterans are entitled.”
The report also took aim at VA regional offices across the country over a lack of internal audit trails.
“We are concerned,” investigators wrote, “these actions appear to be indicators of a systematic trend, motivated to enhance reported performance metrics.”
Since the investigation, the Seattle VA Regional Office has hired a dozen more claims assistants and conducted refresher training for staff.