Melvin Ferguson, a claims assistant for the Veterans Affairs office at Bay Pines, filed complaints with the Office of Special Counsel and with U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board about working conditions at the office. CHRIS URSO/STAFF
For tens of thousands of veterans seeking benefits owed to them for serving their country, the process starts in a pink building on Bay Pines Boulevard in St. Petersburg.
But the St. Petersburg Veterans Affairs Regional Office is struggling to keep up with the massive influx of requests. Adding to the problem is a nationwide backlog of VA programs, according to records obtained by The Tampa Tribune and interviews with union officials and employees, who use the word “toxic” to describe working conditions. As the Department of Veterans Affairs scrambles to handle more than 1 million claims for benefits annually, it has rolled out several initiatives that have resulted in more than 20,000 hours of “production loss” in the first quarter of the fiscal year, according to an office production analysis. Thousands of claims were delayed because the office was waiting for mail after those claims were sent to a company hired by the VA, according to a report by the St. Petersburg office. A Veterans Benefits Management System being introduced by the VA to improve productivity has had so many problems during testing that a February report by the VA's Office of Inspector General states that the system, which has cost more than $500 million so far, “has made the claims process more difficult, rather than improving efficiency as intended.”
St. Petersburg employees are training on the system, which is expected to be in place “in the coming months,” according to VA officials. Last fall, because of tension at the office and safety concerns, new security rules were instituted that require employees to pass through a metal detector, according to union officials. The bottom line, documents compiled by the St. Petersburg regional office show, is that nearly 70 percent of veterans seeking compensation through that office wait at least 125 days for a rating, a formula that determines how much compensation they receive. The VA considers claims requests older than 125 days to be backlogged. As of the end of 2012, there were nearly 50,000 pending claims, nearly half older than 215 days. And there were more than 7,500 veterans who had been waiting a year to 569 days to receive their benefit ratings. “This is unacceptable,” said Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Indian Shores, a member of the House Appropriations Committee's Military Construction, Veteran Affairs, and Related Agencies Subcommittee. The Department of Veterans Affairs is facing enormous challenges in processing claims. Veterans who served since 9/11 are being fast-tracked and have far more complex claims than those from past conflicts, requiring much more documentation and testing. In the past few years, the VA has added health problems resulting from exposure to the defoliant Agent Orange, as well as combat-induced post traumatic stress disorder, to the list of problems presumed to be service-related. That has added more than 230,000 cases to the department's claims-processing system. A disconnect between the VA and the Department of Defense regarding records accessibility is adding to delays because VA employees have a difficult time tracking down the necessary military records. “Since 2009, the backlog of compensation claims has grown,” according to the VA's website. “While VA completed a record-breaking 1 million claims per year in fiscal years 2010, 2011, and 2012, the number of claims received continues to exceed the number processed. “In response, VA is implementing a comprehensive Transformation plan — a series of people, process and technology initiatives — to increase productivity and accuracy of disability claims processing. Once the Transformation is fully implemented, VA expects to systematically reduce the backlog and reach its 2015 goal.” On Friday, the VA announced it would speed up claims for those waiting a year or longer by initiating “provisional” ratings. Those ratings will “allow veterans to begin collecting compensation benefits more quickly, if eligible,” according to a VA fact sheet. VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, in a news release, said the backlog is “unacceptable. That is why we are implementing an aggressive plan to eliminate the backlog in 2015. This initiative is the right thing to do now for veterans who have waited the longest.” But the VA's Office of Inspector General, veteran advocates, union officials and employees say that so far, the department's efforts to get a handle on the problem are adding to the delay. One of the biggest examples of how that dynamic has played out locally is the amount of time employees in the St. Petersburg office have spent learning new systems and procedures. Between October and December, workers at the St. Petersburg office lost more than 23,000 hours of processing time to cope with new VA production initiatives, documents show. The hours were lost “due to training, special national tasking and the Transformation initiatives,” according to documents produced by the regional office in response to a directive from the department's Southern Area Director. The St. Petersburg office has the largest VA disability claims processing center in the nation, office spokeswoman Angela Wilson said. Though the office's own document called the hours a “loss,” Wilson said they were “invested … to insure we are providing quality decisions to all veterans that are accurate and timely.” The office has seen “a substantial improvement in our quality as a direct result of this investment,” Wilson said. That lost time is in addition to employees having to cope with new production standards that have eliminated several categories of work they would receive credit for, said Valorie Reilly, president of American Federation of Government Employees Local 1594. The union represents about 800 workers at the regional office, she said. When the performance standards were rolled out in January, “70 percent of employees” in the St. Petersburg office “were not meeting the standards,” she said. Management is required to initiate a performance review plan for employees not meeting standards for 90 days. “If they don't improve after another 90 days, they are subject to termination or grade reduction,” Reilly said. Though it is too early for any performance review stages, employees “are still terrified,” she said, emphasizing this is a problem affecting VA benefits employees nationwide, not just in St. Petersburg. “This is a bad tool that needs to be fixed.” Those changes are creating tension among employees forced to do more and further reducing office morale, according to employees and the union. The union had a bargaining session last week with the VA in Washington to find new ways of evaluating employees. Adding to the delays, there are about 3,000 claims that the St. Petersburg office sent to a company hired in October 2011 by the VA to assist in developing claims. In its report to the Southern Area Director in January, St. Petersburg officials said the office “has not yet received loose mail to allow continued or initial processing as needed.” The claims were jobbed out to ACS Federal Solutions, a Xerox subsidiary that received a one-year, $18 million contract with two option years that the VA did not approve. Those claims were among the office's most delayed, according to the report. A spokesman for ACS disputed the St. Petersburg office's position on the delay, saying that the company only worked on VA claims for a year, complied with the requirements of the contract and that the backlog timeline predates that contract. By September, the St. Petersburg office is supposed to process 65,463 claims, about half of those older than 125 days. “Based on current resources,” the office “will not meet … production goals for FY 13 based on current resources,” the St. Petersburg office report to the Southern Area Director. To meet the goals will require $2.4 million more in overtime funds through September, which is in addition to more than $400,000 in overtime since January, the documents said. “We are already working too hard,” said Melvin Ferguson, 52, an Army veteran and employee of the office since 2010. As a claims assistant, Ferguson is on the front lines of the benefits process as one of the first employees to view an application. Claims assistants ensure that the claim contains all the pertinent information, is properly collated and entered into the system. Last year, Ferguson filed complaints with the Office of Special Counsel and with U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board about working conditions at the office. The complaints came after a dispute with a supervisor in which Ferguson was critical about the man and was later penalized for making comments causing “division and disruption.” Ferguson claimed the supervisor, “continually harassed, threatened other employees in my presence, created job jeopardy for me, adversely affected the processing of a veteran's claim and created an extremely hostile work environment to the point where it has created fear, hostility from management, inability to get promoted as well as very serious health issues on a daily basis.” Ferguson was seeking protection as a whistleblower, but the Merit Systems Protection Board ruled in February that he failed to provide enough documentation to prove his case and that his complaints “seem to fall more generally into the categories of poor management practices, personality conflicts and his problems with a particular supervisor.” Ferguson is not alone in his complaints. John Pron, 50, a disabled Air Force veteran who is on leave without pay from the office, said pressure from management has created a “toxic” environment. “I would say it is toxic,” said Pron, who was with the office for three years until January and is still trying to obtain his disability retirement benefits from the VA. “It is borderline hostile at times.” In October 2010, Pron reported to management that a supervisor was “threatening” him and “yelling” at him. Last December, he said another supervisor was creating a “hostile work environment,” a claim management denied. The working conditions in St. Petersburg have been a big issue for the union, which can't even agree with officials on the number of employees. Spokeswoman Angela Wilson said staff levels have increased over the past five years from 500 to 700, while the union said it was told by management the levels decreased over the past year, from 900 to 800. Adding to morale issues are edicts from Washington requiring workers to take time out from processing claims to learn new systems and procedures, Pron said. “You are being tugged in several different directions,” said Pron, who held the same position as Ferguson and served as a witness in Ferguson's complaint against the VA. “You have to stop what you are doing and go to meetings, go on the computer. There is a lot of training that takes you away from your job.” Stress among employees has created a culture of anger and fear, he said. On Jan. 25, 2012, Pron filed a complaint with the VA Police that a colleague “made violent and odd statements” for a year. The statements, according to the police report, included “I want to bring my twins to work, 9 mm, one in each hand and use them in the regional office.” The investigating officer, Larry Aranda, wrote that “although the suspect has not committed any crime, officer found the suspect's behavior to be out of line …” Aranda wrote that he reported the employee to supervisors and the human resources department. Wilson, the office spokeswoman, said management is aware of the situation, which she described as an “incident between two people” and is “monitoring the situation.” By the fall of last year, a series of incidents resulted in increased security at the office, said Reilly, the union president. Everyone entering the building is required to pass through a metal detector, and all bags and packages are inspected by X-ray machines. Wilson said the security procedures were changed because the office “identified security vulnerability.” These are tough times for those who process claims in St. Petersburg, Reilly said. “Conditions at the regional office are stressful,” she said. “High levels of stress for such a prolonged period of time have led many employees to feel they're working in a toxic atmosphere. Station goals and individual performance standards are not linked. Therefore, this has led to an unrealistic performance of employees. Keep in mind 50 percent of our employees are veterans.” Wilson disputes that. “An accurate statement of the current work environment would be employees working very hard to provide better service to the veterans and their families that we serve in the state of Florida,” she wrote. Rep. Young said he is not satisfied with the VA's response to the backlog. That opinion is shared by Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Pensacola, who is chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs. “Improving VA's ability to process claims starts with having an honest conversation about problems that have plagued the department for years: mismanagement, poor planning and lack of accountability among some employees,” Miller said. “So far, department officials have been unwilling to have that discussion. As a result, veterans and their families are suffering.”