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Criticism led to layoff, former St. Pete VA specialist testifies

Until June 30, Javier Soto was a rating specialist at the Veterans Benefits Administration St. Petersburg office.

But just days after delivering what he said is a blistering review of how the office handles veterans claims, Soto said he was laid off by director Kerrie Witty.

Monday night, Soto testified before the House Veterans Affairs Committee about his experience at the office and the problems he says exist there.

“The pressure to focus on production and complete cases has resulted in less attention on quality to meet ‘numbers’ goals,” Soto said in his written statement for the committee.

Soto, whose official title was Rating Veteran Service Representative, also served as an official with the union representing office workers,

Officials from the St. Petersburg regional office say because of privacy issues, they cannot respond without written permission from Soto, who did not respond to phone calls and an email from The Tribune.

Various system changes “seem to shift the burden to the veteran to prove the claim, or hide claim processing times, and may violate certain goals of the duty to assist,” Soto wrote in his testimony to the committee. “While quality control methods are touted nationally as the measure of overall claims processing quality, local internal employee quality reviews show high error rates locally, and disagreements on what is a quality error and how to evaluate evidence. In order to move cases faster, it seems the focus is on less time for veterans to submit evidence or for VA to obtain it, to close the record faster, with the observation that there may be an increase in denial of claims at my former office as a result.”

U.S. Rep. David Jolly, a committee member whose district contains the regional office, said he is looking into the best way to investigate Soto’s claims.

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Soto testified that he worked at the St. Petersburg regional office for four years, during which he was steadily promoted and received successful ratings.

He said he was initially hired to work the night shift, which was created to help reduce the backlog of claims at the office. But management eventually disbanded that plan, displacing a number of employees as a result, Soto testified.

“We were promised verbally, by Kerrie Witty ... and Mr. Scott Posti, assistant director, (at the time), that night shift would never go away as this program was meant to meet the goals of ending the backlog,” Soto testified. “Less than a year later, night shift went away. Further, about 60 percent of hires on the night shift rater class are no longer raters or employed as raters.”

The VA, said Soto, has “steadily shortened evidence wait periods for items like private medical record requests, duty to assist time periods and research for other records resulting in claims that are not fully substantiated.

“When the evidence submission window closes, the claim is rated based on the evidence of record,” he testified. “As a consequence, a denial for benefits results if no evidence arrived during the new shortened period of time.”

Another issue vexing employees is that standards for work product accuracy seem arbitrary, Soto said.

Accuracy figures differ between the regional office, the national office and the Office of Inspector General, he testified.

Employee reviews “seem subjective or based on preference of the reviewer,” Soto said. “Accuracy impacts production because it is used punitively against employees. Because of confusion over accuracy demands by the local quality review team, some employees report shifting rating practices to accommodate reviewer ‘preference,’ not law.”

Employees, said Soto, have complained to their union — the American Federation of Government Employees — about comments by managers of “let the Veteran appeal” or “that’s what appeals are for” when questioning claims processing concerns.”

Workplace hostility has increased, said Soto, because of quality and production.

“Senior management has received bad reviews from employees in employee surveys,” he testified. “While management refuses to admit the problems continue, or exist, recent emails exemplify the conflicting quality process: An employee asked for guidance on whether to order an exam based on a veteran submitted claim and evidence. Due to a fluke, two quality reviewers responded via email to the same question minutes apart (the question was entered into a ‘request for help”’ database). They issued opposing guidance to the employee (one said order the exam, the other said do not order the exam).”

Oversight, he added, is lacking.

“Despite Congress calling for a time motion study at VBA, I have not seen or heard of one performed for the latest performance standards,” he testified. “I did review data on a previous study (I think over five years ago) and those familiar with the study advised that VBA stopped such studies because they did not support the performance standards used by VBA.”

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Jolly said he is looking into the best way of investigating Soto’s claims.

One way would be to “use the resources of the committee to obtain information,” he said. The other is asking the regional office about Soto’s personnel issues.

“I prefer using the resources of the committee,” said Jolly, adding such a move would provide answers to a wider range of questions.

On Tuesday, Jolly met with Soto and later Regional Office Director Kerrie L. Witty.

Jolly said because of privacy issues, he could not discuss details about Soto’s complaint that he was terminated for being a whistleblower.

During the meeting with Witty, Jolly said he had her walk him through issues like provisional ratings — a process to help reduce the backlog of benefits claims older than two years — and the quality review teams Soto testified about.

“I asked her if the claims backlog is being reduced,” he said. Witty, he said, replied “that is true at the St. Pete office as well, perhaps not to the same extent as nationally.”

There are currently nearly 20,000 claims considered backlogged at the office, a reduction of about 1,000 since May and 41 percent since March 2013, according to regional office officials.

“We have to take comments like those from Mr. Soto very seriously,” said Jolly. “They are allegations essentially that the process is being manipulated to the disadvantage of veterans with potentially eligible claims.”

Tuesday afternoon, U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller, chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, wrote a letter to Witty directing her to “cooperate fully with any inquiry made by Congressman Jolly, or, for that matter, any inquiry” by a committee member into Soto’s dismissal.

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Summarizing his experience at the St. Petersburg Regional Office, Soto said he has great respect for the work and the veterans he was helping.

“I have the utmost respect for this job and the legal process here,” he testified. “I am also awed by the background and efforts of our veterans that I have served by deciding claims.”

He testified that he was “simply trying to help” when he issued a report showing the St. Petersburg regional office quality review team was “performing poorly, overturning their own decisions about 50 percent of the time on appeal.”

The report was written on June 24 and distributed two days later, he testified.

“I was involuntarily separated June 30, by Kerrie Witty, Director, because ‘my services were no longer required,’” he testified. “I was laid off in the middle of a backlog and a push to hire more raters. As a re-employed retiree I was determined to be at will and no longer needed.”

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