What GAO Found
The Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) has limited information on whether contractors who conduct disability compensation medical exams are meeting the agency’s quality and timeliness targets. VBA contracted examiners have completed a growing number of exams in recent years (see figure). VBA uses completed exam reports to help determine if a veteran should receive disability benefits. VBA reported that the vast majority of contractors’ quality scores fell well below VBA’s target—92 percent of exam reports with no errors—for the first half of 2017. Since then, VBA has not completed all its quality reviews, but has hired more staff to do them. VBA officials acknowledged that VBA also does not have accurate information on contractor timeliness. VBA officials said the exam management system used until spring 2018 did not always retain the initial exam report completion date, which is used to calculate timeliness. In spring 2018, VBA implemented a new system designed to capture this information. GAO-19-13: Published: Oct 12, 2018. Publicly Released: Nov 8, 2018
VBA monitoring has addressed some problems with contractors, such as reassigning exams from contractors that did not have enough examiners to those that did. However, the issues GAO identified with VBA’s quality and timeliness information limit VBA’s ability to effectively oversee contractors. For example, VBA officials said they were unable to track the timeliness of exam reports sent back to contractors for corrections, which is needed to determine if VBA should reduce payment to a contractor. The new system implemented in spring 2018 tracks more detailed data on exam timeliness. However, VBA has not documented how it will ensure the data are accurate or how it will use the data to track the timeliness and billing of corrected exam reports. VBA also has no plans to use the new system to analyze performance data to identify trends or other program-wide issues. Without such plans, VBA may miss opportunities to improve contractor oversight and the program overall.
A third-party auditor verifies that contracted examiners have valid medical licenses, but VBA does not verify if examiners have completed training nor does it collect information to assess training effectiveness in preparing examiners. While VBA plans to improve monitoring of training, it has not documented plans for tracking or collecting information to assess training. These actions could help ensure that VBA contractors provide veterans with high-quality exams and help VBA determine if additional training is needed.
Why GAO Did This Study
In 2016, VBA awarded 12 contracts to five private firms for up to $6.8 billion lasting up to 5 years to conduct veterans’ disability medical exams. Both VBA contracted medical examiners and medical providers from the Veterans Health Administration perform these exams, with a growing number of exams being completed by contractors. Starting in 2017, VBA contracted examiners conducted about half of all exams. GAO was asked to review the performance and oversight of VBA’s disability medical exam contractors.
This report examines (1) what is known about the quality and timeliness of VBA contracted exams; (2) the extent to which VBA monitors contractors’ performance; and (3) how VBA ensures that its contractors provide qualified and well-trained examiners. GAO analyzed the most recent reliable data available on the quality and timeliness of exams (January 2017 to February 2018), reviewed VBA and selected contract documents and relevant federal laws and regulations, and interviewed agency officials, exam contractors, an audit firm that checks examiners’ licenses, and selected veterans service organizations.
What GAO Recommends
GAO recommends VBA (1) develop a plan for using its new data system to monitor contractors’ quality and timeliness performance, (2) analyze overall program performance, (3) verify that contracted examiners complete required training, and (4) collect information to assess the effectiveness of that training. The Department of Veterans Affairs agreed with GAO’s recommendations.
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Employee misconduct at VA’s medical facilities can have serious consequences for veterans. We looked at how VA deals with employee misconduct and found several opportunities for improvement. For example:
VA doesn’t always maintain required files and documents for adjudication, suggesting that employees may not have received due process.
VA officials found guilty of misconduct sometimes received a lesser punishment than recommended or no punishment.
Whistleblowers were 10 times more likely than their peers to receive disciplinary action within a year of reporting misconduct.
Why GAO Did This Study
VA provides services and benefits to veterans through hospitals and other facilities nationwide. Misconduct by VA employees can have serious consequences for some veterans, including poor quality of care. GAO was asked to review employee misconduct across VA. This report reviews the extent to which VA (1) collects reliable information associated with employee misconduct and disciplinary actions, (2) adheres to documentation-retention procedures when adjudicating cases of employee misconduct, (3) ensures allegations of misconduct involving senior officials are reviewed according to VA investigative standards and these officials are held accountable, and (4) has procedures to investigate whistle-blower allegations of misconduct; and the extent to which (5) data and whistle-blower testimony indicate whether retaliation for disclosing misconduct occurs at VA.
GAO analyzed 12 information systems across VA to assess the reliability of misconduct data, examined a stratified random sample of 544 misconduct cases from 2009 through 2015, analyzed data and reviewed cases pertaining to senior officials involved in misconduct, reviewed procedures pertaining to whistle-blower investigations, and examined a nongeneralizable sample of whistle-blower disclosures from 2010 to 2014.
What GAO Found
The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) collects data related to employee misconduct and disciplinary actions, but fragmentation and data-reliability issues impede department-wide analysis of those data. VA maintains six information systems that include partial data related to employee misconduct. For example, VA’s Personnel and Accounting Integrated Data system collects information on disciplinary actions that affect employee leave and pay, but the system does not collect information on other types of disciplinary actions. The system also does not collect information such as the offense or date of occurrence. GAO also identified six other information systems that various VA administrations and program offices use to collect specific information regarding their respective employees’ misconduct and disciplinary actions. GAO’s analysis of all 12 information systems found data-reliability issues—such as missing data, lack of identifiers, and lack of standardization among fields. Without collecting reliable misconduct and disciplinary action data on all cases department-wide, VA’s reporting and decision making on misconduct are impaired.
VA inconsistently adhered to its guidance for documentation retention when adjudicating misconduct allegations, based on GAO’s review of a generalizable sample of 544 out of 23,622 misconduct case files associated with employee disciplinary actions affecting employee pay. GAO estimates that VA would not be able to account for approximately 1,800 case files. Further, GAO estimates that approximately 3,600 of the files did not contain required documentation that employees were adequately informed of their rights during adjudication procedures—such as their entitlement to be represented by an attorney. The absence of files and associated documentation suggests that individuals may not have always received fair and reasonable due process as allegations of misconduct were adjudicated. Nevertheless, VA’s Office of Human Resource Management does not regularly assess the extent to which files and documentation are retained consistently with applicable requirements.
VA did not consistently ensure that allegations of misconduct involving senior officials were reviewed according to investigative standards and these officials were held accountable. For example, based on a review of 23 cases of alleged misconduct by senior officials that the VA Office of Inspector General (OIG) referred to VA facility and program offices for additional investigation, GAO found VA frequently did not include sufficient documentation for its findings, or provide a timely response to the OIG. In addition, VA was unable to produce anydocumentation used to close 2 cases. Further, OIG policy does not require the OIG to verify the completeness of investigations, which would help ensure that facility and program offices had met the requirements for investigating allegations of misconduct. Regarding senior officials, VA did not always take necessary measures to ensure they were held accountable for substantiated misconduct. As the figure below shows, GAO found that the disciplinary action proposed was not taken for 5 of 17 senior officials with substantiated misconduct.
Action Proposed in Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Office of Accountability Review’s Legacy Referral Tracking List Compared with Final Action Taken
Action Proposed in Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Office of Accountability Review’s Legacy Referral Tracking List Compared with Final Action Taken
As a result of June 2017 legislation, a new office within VA—the Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection—will be responsible for receiving and investigating allegations of misconduct involving senior officials.
VA has procedures for investigating whistle-blower complaints, but the procedures allow the program office or facility where a whistle-blower has reported misconduct to conduct the investigation. According to the OIG, it has the option of investigating allegations of misconduct, or exercising a “right of first refusal” whereby it refers allegations of misconduct to the VA facility or program office where the allegation originated. VA does not have oversight measures to ensure that all referred allegations of misconduct are investigated by an entity outside the control of the facility or program office involved in the misconduct, to ensure independence. As a result, GAO found instances where managers investigated themselves for misconduct, presenting a conflict of interest.Data and whistle-blower testimony indicate that retaliation may have occurred at VA. As the table below shows, individuals who filed a disclosure of misconduct with the Office of Special Counsel (OSC) received disciplinary action at a much higher rate than the peer average for the rest of VA in fiscal years 2010–2014.
Data and whistle-blower testimony indicate that retaliation may have occurred at VA. As the table below shows, individuals who filed a disclosure of misconduct with the Office of Special Counsel (OSC) received disciplinary action at a much higher rate than the peer average for the rest of VA in fiscal years 2010–2014.
|Comparison of Adverse Disciplinary Action Taken for Nonanonymous Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Employees Who Reported Wrongdoing and Those Who Did Not, 2010–2014
||Percentage for whom adverse actions were taken
|Prior to disclosure
||Year of disclosure
||Year after disclosure
|Individuals who filed a disclosure
|Rest of VA
Additionally, GAO’s interviews with six VA whistle-blowers who claim to have been retaliated against provided anecdotal evidence that retaliation may be occurring. These whistle-blowers alleged that managers in their chain of command took several untraceable actions to retaliate against the whistle- blowers, such as being denied access to computer equipment necessary to complete assignments.
What GAO Recommends
GAO makes numerous recommendations to Veterans Affairs to help enhance its ability to address misconduct issues.
GAO recommends, among other things, that the Secretary of Veterans Affairs
- develop and implement guidance to collect complete and reliable misconduct and disciplinary-action data department-wide; such guidance should include direction and procedures on addressing blank fields, lack of personnel identifiers, and standardization among fields;
- direct applicable facility and program offices to adhere to VA’s policies regarding misconduct adjudication documentation;
- direct the Office of Human Resource Management to routinely assess the extent to which misconduct-related files and documents are retained consistently with applicable requirements;
- direct the Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection (OAWP) to review responses submitted by facility or program offices to ensure evidence produced in senior-official case referrals demonstrates that the required elements have been addressed;
- direct OAWP to issue written guidance on how OAWP will verify whether appropriate disciplinary action has been implemented; and
- develop procedures to ensure (1) whistle-blower investigations are reviewed by an official independent of and at least one level above the individual involved in the allegation, and (2) VA employees who report wrongdoing are treated fairly and protected against retaliation.
GAO also recommends, among other things, that the VA OIG
- revise its policy and require verification of evidence produced in senior-official case referrals.
VA concurred with nine recommendations and partially concurred with five. In response, GAO modified three of the recommendations. The VA OIG concurred with one recommendation and partially concurred with the other. GAO continues to believe that both are warranted. GAO modified three of the recommendations. The VA OIG concurred with one recommendation and partially concurred with the other. GAO continues to believe that both are warranted.
Employee misconduct at VA’s medical facilities can have serious consequences for veterans. We looked at how VA deals with employee misconduct and found several opportunities for improvement. For example:VA doesn’t always maintain required files and documents for adjudication, suggesting that employees may not have received due process.VA officials found guilty of misconduct sometimes received a lesser punishment than recommended or no punishment.Whistleblowers were 10 times more likely than their peers to receive disciplinary action within a year of reporting misconduct.
Why the OIG Did This Review
The OIG conducted this review to determine whether Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) employees required disabled veterans to submit to unwarranted medical reexaminations.1
VBA employees have authority to request reexaminations for veterans “whenever VA determines there is a need to verify either the continued existence or the current severity of a disability,” and when there is no exclusion from reexamination.2 While reexaminations are important in the appropriate situation to ensure taxpayer dollars are appropriately spent, unwarranted reexaminations cause undue hardship for veterans. They also generate excessive work, resulting in significant costs and the diversion of VA personnel from veteran care and services.
What the Review Found
VBA employees did not consistently follow policy to request reexaminations only when necessary.3 The OIG team reviewed a statistical sample of 300 cases with reexaminations from March through August 2017 (review period) and found that employees requested unwarranted medical reexaminations in 111 cases. Based on this sample, the review team estimated that employees requested unwarranted reexaminations in 19,800 of the 53,500 cases during the review period (37 percent). VBA employees requested reexaminations for veterans whose cases qualified for exclusion from reexamination for one or more of the following reasons:
- Over 55 years old at the time of the examination, and not otherwise warranted by unusual circumstances or regulation
- Permanent disability and not likely to improve
- Disability without substantial improvement over five years
- Claims folders contained updated medical evidence sufficient to continue the current disability evaluation without additional examination
- Overall combined evaluation of multiple disabilities would not change irrespective of the outcome of reexamining the particular condition
- Disability evaluation of 10 percent or less
- Disability evaluation at the minimum level for the condition4
The review team estimated that during the six-month review period, VBA spent $10.1 million on unwarranted reexaminations—$5.3 million involving Veterans Health Administration clinicians and $4.8 million involving VBA contractors.5 The review team estimated that VBA would waste $100.6 million on unwarranted reexaminations over the next five years unless it ensures that employees only request reexaminations when necessary.
In assessing the unnecessary burdens for veterans, the review team estimated that VBA required 19,800 veterans to report for unwarranted medical reexaminations during the review period. Reinforcing the needlessness of the reexaminations, approximately14,200 veterans experienced no change to their disability evaluations because of their reexamination. The review team estimated that the reexaminations resulted in proposed benefit reductions for about 3,700 veterans.6 At the conclusion of the review period, these proposed reductions remained subject to a final decision and an appeal process; therefore, the OIG did not make a determination on whether the reductions were justified.7 Unwarranted reexaminations also created unnecessary work for Veterans Affairs employees, which reduced VBA’s capacity to process benefits claims and the Veterans Health Administration’s (VHA’s) capacity to provide healthcare services.
Why This Occurred
Prior to requesting that a veteran appear for a medical reexamination, VBA policy requires a Rating Veterans Service Representative (RVSR) to review the veteran’s claims folder and determine whether the reexamination is needed (pre-exam review).8 The pre-exam review serves as an internal control to prevent unwarranted reexaminations. The review team estimated, however, that 15,500 of 19,800 unwarranted reexaminations (78 percent) lacked a pre-exam review by an RVSR, indicating that VBA management routinely bypassed this internal control. Instead, VA Regional Office (VARO) managers routed these cases directly to a Veterans Service Representative (VSR) for scheduling the reexamination.
VARO managers explained that routing cases directly to VSRs was consistent with guidance from the Executive in Charge for VBA. The guidance recommends that tasks not directly related to making a disability rating decision should not be assigned to an RVSR. The Executive in Charge confirmed that the VARO managers’ interpretation was consistent with his expectations. He explained to the review team that RVSR capacity is limited, and therefore an RVSR should not spend time on activities that do not directly relate to making rating determinations. Reinforcing the Executive in Charge’s mandate, VBA redesigned its employee performance standards in 2017. This revision resulted in RVSRs earning work credit for rating decisions but not for other transactions, such as canceling an unwarranted reexamination.
Bypassing the pre-exam review caused unwarranted reexaminations. VARO managers routed the work to VSRs who lacked the training and experience necessary to make accurate determinations about whether a reexamination was warranted. Determining whether a reexamination is necessary is an RVSR responsibility; however, VSRs were tasked with making this determination. VBA employees and managers stated that determining the necessity of a reexamination requires specialized knowledge, including the ability to review medical evidence. Similarly, 14 of the 24 VSRs interviewed told the review team that they were unfamiliar with the criteria for determining whether a reexamination was necessary.
VBA also did not invest in developing alternative internal controls to compensate for the lack of a pre-exam review. VBA could add features to the Veterans Benefits Management System (VBMS) to prevent the scheduling of reexaminations in cases that meet the exemption criteria, such as information system automation. VBA has not implemented these features in VBMS due to reported competing technology priorities and a lack of funding. In September 2017, VBA took initial steps and implemented a technology strategy designed to reduce unnecessary work by identifying and canceling work items for veterans age 55 or older that would have resulted in unwarranted reexaminations. This effort resulted in the one-time elimination of approximately 45,000 reexaminations. VBA plans to implement additional one-time cancellations in the future, and VBMS automation is scheduled for FY 2019 or later.
Finally, VBA’s quality assurance processes did not measure whether VBA employees requested reexaminations only when necessary, nor did these processes evaluate whether an RVSR conducted a pre-exam review as required by VBA policy.
What the OIG Recommended
The OIG made four recommendations to the Under Secretary for Benefits:
- Establish internal controls sufficient to ensure that a reexamination is necessary prior to employees ordering it, and modify VBA procedures as appropriate to reflect these improved business processes.
- Take steps to prioritize the design and implementation of system automation reasonably designed to minimize unwarranted reexaminations.
- Enhance VBA’s quality assurance reviews to evaluate whether employees correctly requested reexaminations and to categorize unwarranted reexaminations as errors.
- Conduct a special focused quality improvement review of cases with unwarranted reexaminations to understand and redress the causes of any avoidable errors.
The Under Secretary for Benefits concurred with three of the four recommendations, and concurred in principle with the fourth recommendation. The Under Secretary for Benefits provided acceptable action plans for all four recommendations. The OIG will monitor VBA’s progress and follow up on implementation of the recommendations until all proposed actions are completed.
The Under Secretary for Benefits also provided technical comments related to this report. The OIG considered those comments and made clarifications where applicable.
1 VBA also refers to medical reexaminations as routine future examinations.
2 38 CFR §3.327, Reexaminations.
3 The relevant policy is found in M21-1 Adjudication Procedures Manual, Part III, Subpart iv, Chapter 3, Section B, Topic 2, Determining the Need for Review Examinations.
4 VBA relies on these objective criteria to identify disabilities that are unlikely to improve and therefore do not merit the expense and burden of reexamination.
5 The review team estimated the cost of unwarranted reexaminations using the results of the team’s statistical sample claims review. See Appendix C for more information on the statistical sampling methodology and results.
6 The review team did not project cost savings based on the 3,700 veterans with proposed reductions because the reductions were only proposals—not final reductions. When VBA makes a final decision, the proposed reduction amount may be changed, or there may be no reduction at all.
7 The review team estimated the number of veterans who had proposed benefits reductions using the results of the team’s statistical sample. Some reexaminations resulted in increases to veterans’ benefits, but the small sample size prevented the review team from making a statistical projection to estimate the value of all increases during the review period.
8 M21-1 Adjudication Procedures Manual, Part III, Subpart iv, Chapter 3, Section C, Topic 2, Control of Future Examinations. For this report, the OIG defines the required RVSR review prior to a reexamination request as the Pre-exam Review.