By James Dao
New York Times
PHILADELPHIA — In July 2010, a Department of Veterans Affairs employee named Kristen Ruell was updating a benefit claim when she noticed something odd. What should have been an increase of about $2,000 in a monthly payment to the widow of a veteran showed up on her computer screen as $21,000.
Puzzled, she set the claim aside and began digging into computer files for an answer. What she found surprised and worried her: the department’s database contained duplicate records for the widow, and the system was trying to pay her twice. It was also recommending a retroactive payment dating back months — though the widow had already been paid for that period.
After seeing the same problem in other claims, Ms. Ruell, who works on a quality review team at a veterans pension management center in Philadelphia, says she raised red flags with her bosses. If she, one of scores of payment authorizers nationwide, was just noticing the duplicate payments, was it not likely that the department had inadvertently overpaid many other people for years?
Two years later, that concern has not been resolved, Ms. Ruell and several other pension management workers say.
The department says duplicate payments are rare — perhaps fewer than 100 a year. A robust system of checks and balances, human and digital, routinely prevents a vast majority of such payments, said David R. McLenachen, the director of the department’s pensions and fiduciary service.
But Ms. Ruell and several of her colleagues, who described the problem for a reporter because they felt the department was not addressing it, believe that the duplicate payments are far more common, and costly, than their leadership acknowledges.
They say that they see new cases weekly and that the problem also occurs at the department’s other pension centers in Milwaukee and St. Paul. They express frustration that the department seems unable to prevent the creation of new duplicate records that can lead to duplicate payments. And they say their superiors do not consistently try to recoup overpayments — though the department denies that assertion.
“I’m just bothered the way money is wasted and no one cares,” said Ms. Ruell, 37, a lawyer who has worked at the pension center for five years.
The issue is starting to get attention in Washington. The department’s Office of Inspector General has begun looking into it, a spokeswoman said, and a congressman from the Philadelphia area says he will ask that the department provide an accounting of duplicate payments by Oct. 31.
“No one has a real handle on this,” Representative Michael G. Fitzpatrick, a Republican from Bucks County, said in an interview. “The V.A. management appears to believe it is not their responsibility to get our tax dollars back from people who should not have received the money in the first place.”
The department did not allow Ms. Ruell’s supervisors to talk about the duplicate payments. But Mr. McLenachen disputed her assertions, saying he was confident that managers were trying to collect overpayments.
“Our field employees are required to follow procedures,” he said.
Mr. McLenachen, however, acknowledged that it would be hard to determine the precise number of duplicate payments without beneficiaries coming forward voluntarily. Ms. Ruell says people have returned duplicate checks on their own, but only occasionally.
The duplicate payments are the flip side of the attempt to speedily eliminate a backlog in the processing of claims. While the backlog is widely blamed for delays in compensation to veterans, overpayments are unlikely to draw much criticism from veterans advocates.
Workers say that both delayed payment and overpayment stem from the same circumstances: too few workers trying to process too many claims in too little time. The pressure to work swiftly despite a complex system of benefits and rules, along with outdated or trouble-prone technology, has made human and computer errors all too common, the workers say.
One Philadelphia employee, Ryan Cease, whose job for a time included correcting duplicate records, said it could take hours to fix one. Mr. Cease, who says he has found evidence of more than 1,200 duplicate pension records, proposed creating a team to tackle the problem. But supervisors have not responded, he said.
The veterans pension system, part of the sprawling Veterans Benefits Administration, pays more than $4 billion a year in benefits, mainly to low-income veterans. It also provides benefits to the survivors of veterans, who can receive monthly compensation even after a veteran dies. Pension center workers say duplicate payments mainly seem to involve survivors for a variety of reasons.
Both management and workers agree that the duplicate payments began about three years ago when the department started shifting from an older computer system to new technology known as the Veterans Service Network, or Vetsnet.
Under the old system, workers say, it was impossible to have more than one record for a veteran or relatives of a veteran. But with Vetsnet, workers say, the technology has allowed duplicate records.
The problem begins when there is a discrepancy in the identifying information. For instance, if a person is listed in the database without a Social Security number, new claims for that person using his or her Social Security number can lead to the creation of a duplicate record in Vetsnet, the workers say.
It was not unusual under the old system that the Social Security numbers of veterans’ spouses would not be on file; the veteran’s number was more important, workers said. But after a veteran died, a spouse’s Social Security number would be used in filing subsequent claims. And that could lead to a duplicate record.
Duplicate records do not always cause extra payments, the workers noted. But if an unsuspecting claims processor updates a duplicate record — perhaps because the survivor is seeking new or additional benefits — the computer may calculate benefits as if the person had filed a new claim. And that could lead to a second monthly check and a large retroactive payment.
A human being must sign off on the computer’s calculations. But if the person authorizing payments does not notice an excessive award — something Ms. Ruell says might happen when authorizers are inexperienced or rushed — duplicate payments can be approved.
Mr. McLenachen said that not only did authorizers usually catch duplicate payments, but that the system also had a fail-proof check: the Treasury Department will not issue payments without Social Security numbers. That ensures, he said, that it catches duplicate records when one has a number and one does not.
But Ms. Ruell says she has discovered cases where the Treasury Department system attached incorrect Social Security numbers to a survivor’s claim. The result, she said, was a duplicate payment.
A few days ago, a fellow employee brought her a case in which the computer calculated that a widow was owed $28,000. It was a duplicate payment, and Ms. Ruell corrected it. The system had worked. But it does not always, she insists.
“We’re not catching it,” she said.