Audit of VBA's Post-9/11 G.I. Bill Tuition and Fee Payments
OIG evaluated the Veterans Benefits Administration’s (VBA) oversight of Post 9/11 G.I. Bill tuition and fee payments to determine if payments were appropriate and accurate. Of the $5.2 billion in Post-9/11 G.I. Bill tuition and fee payments made for nearly 796,000 students during academic year 2013-2014 (August 1, 2013, to July 31, 2014), we reviewed more than $1.7 million in payments made to 50 statistically-selected schools for 225 students. We found VBA staff at the RPOs made 46 improper payments totaling just under $90,900. In addition, we identified 39 overpayments totaling just under $96,400 where the RPOs had not initiated recoupment actions. In total, 32 of the reviewed schools, including 19 for-profit schools, had improper payments and missed recoupments. Furthermore, 20 of the 32 identified schools lacked compliance surveys. Due to program design, VBA must make payments prospectively based on the enrollment information submitted by the schools. Many of these improper payments and missed recoupments occurred because School Certifying Officials’ (SCOs) submitted incorrect and/or incomplete information on students’ enrollment certifications. To help reduce improper payments and missed recoupments, VBA needed to: Improve the SCOs’ awareness of program requirements related to the submission of accurate and complete enrollment certifications; Refine the school selection process and ensure the completion of required compliance surveys to improve the verification and monitoring of tuition and fee certifications; Develop adequate guidance regarding allowable book fees and repeated classes; Verify and obtain supporting documentation for mitigating circumstances. From the more than $5.2 billion tuition and fee payments made for academic year 2013-2014, we projected that VBA made about $247.6 million in improper payments and more than $205.5 million in missed recoupments, annually. As a result, VBA may have an estimated $2.3 billion in improper tuition and fee payments and missed recoupments ($1.2 billion improper payments + $1 billion missed recoupments) over the next 5 academic school years if it does not strengthen program controls. We recommended VBA improve school outreach to ensure accurate and complete certifications are submitted, develop risk profiles for schools to periodically review and verify their certifications, incorporate risk factors into the prioritization and completion of compliance surveys, revise the SCO Handbook, and ensure that mitigating circumstances are properly verified and supporting documentation is obtained. Furthermore, we recommended VBA strengthen policies and controls related to the discontinuance and recoupment of payments, repeated classes, and satisfactory academic progress and that it take action, where appropriate, to recover identified improper payments and initiate recoupments.
Review of Alleged Waste of Funds at VHA's Madison VA Medical Center
The Office of Inspector General received an allegation regarding the potential waste of funds at the Madison VA Medical Center (VAMC), located in Madison, WI. The complainant alleged that the facility had purchased a laser lead extractor in 2012 for about $1 million and never used it. The complainant also alleged that the facility spent approximately $125,000 on a robot to distribute supplies that could not operate autonomously within the hospital and installed a patient lift for about $2,500, despite staff stating that they did not need it and would not use it. We substantiated the allegation that the Cardiology department did not use the laser lead extractor. We found that the facility did not purchase but leased this device at a cost of about $100,000. Even though the laser lead extractor had been on hand for nearly two and a half years, the Cardiology department was unable to use it because of operating room space utilization and staffing issues. Instead, the Cardiology department sent veterans to non-VA facilities to have the procedures performed. We determined that the VAMC officials involved in the decision to lease the device did not ensure the lease of the laser lead extractor was the most cost-effective approach for extracting pacemaker and defibrillator leads. We found that the facility purchased two robots for nearly $313,000. We substantiated the allegation that the VAMC could not use the robots effectively because, when planning the acquisition, the logistics department did not consider whether the robots could operate effectively within the facility. As a result, the two robots have not been used in about 2 years. We concluded that the VAMC could have better used the roughly $410,000 it spent to lease the laser lead extractor and purchase the robots. We did not substantiate the allegation regarding the patient lift. The facility installed the lift in response to an encounter with a double amputee bariatric patient and a Safe Patient Handling Program guidance. We found that the lift provides a benefit to employees and ensures the safety of patients when they need to be moved. We recommended the Veterans Integrated Service Network (VISN) 12 Acting Director ensure Madison VAMC management complies with facility policy requiring sufficient justification supporting equipment acquisition requests. We also recommended the VISN 12 Acting Director conduct an analysis to ensure VISN facilities are effectively utilizing any laser lead extractors. The VISN 12 Acting Director concurred with our recommendations and provided plans for corrective action. We will monitor planned actions and follow up on their implementation.
Review of VBA’s Special Monthly Compensation Housebound Benefits
We conducted this review to determine whether the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) properly granted entitlement to all statutory housebound special monthly compensation (SMC) benefits for living veterans with a single disability rated as 100 percent and one or more disabilities independently rated at 60 percent. This review focused on whether VBA failed to pay or delayed paying any of these benefits. We also assessed the accuracy of SMC evaluations for veterans receiving compensation at the housebound rate, including statutory housebound, and housebound in fact, as well as SMC that had been incorrectly coded as housebound benefits. We conducted our review from March 2015 through February 2016. Our first review objective focused on a population of about 186,000 living veterans’ cases nationwide that at some point were entitled to statutory housebound SMC benefits based on a single disability rated as 100 percent and one or more disabilities independently rated at 60 percent as of March 10, 2015. To address our second objective, we reviewed a population of about 98,400 veterans’ cases nationwide receiving compensation at the housebound rate for any reason as of March 10, 2015. To accomplish our objectives, we reviewed applicable laws, regulations, policies, procedures, and guidelines. We also interviewed appropriate VBA management, employees, and other officials. We conducted onsite interviews with VBA management and staff at eight VA regional offices from September through November 2015. The VA regional offices in Atlanta, GA; Cleveland, OH; Lincoln, NE; Nashville, TN; Saint Petersburg, FL; Seattle, WA; Waco, TX; and Winston Salem, NC, were selected based on having the most cases in our samples. We reviewed a statistically selected random sample of 250 cases with eligibility to statutory housebound benefits, based on veterans having a single disability rated as 100 percent and one or more disabilities independently rated at 60 percent as of March 10, 2015. We also reviewed a stratified random sample of 247 cases of veterans receiving compensation at the housebound rate and grouped according to their combined evaluation. We reviewed the claims folders and electronic records for each of the cases and sought to determine whether they had been accurately worked. For more information on the scope and methodology of this review, go to Appendix B. We identified errors in 45 of 250 cases (18 percent) in which veterans were entitled to statutory housebound benefits based on having a single disability rated as 100 percent disabling and one or more disabilities independently rated at 60 percent or more. Errors included failure to grant housebound benefits, failure to pay housebound benefits that had been granted, and prematurely reducing housebound benefits. We also found errors in 127 of 247 cases (51 percent) in which veterans were being paid compensation at the housebound rate. In 10 additional cases, we could not determine whether housebound in-fact benefits were accurate because VBA’s eligibility criteria were unclear. We identified different error rates within each group of our stratified sample. As a result, we estimated an overall error rate of 10 percent for veterans being paid compensation at the housebound rate, and a 27 percent error rate for veterans with combined evaluations that were 90 percent or less. Generally, the inaccuracies we identified involved housebound benefits for unemployable veterans, entry of SMC codes into the electronic system, and housebound benefits on an in-fact basis. Generally, VBA staff failed to grant statutory housebound benefits because they overlooked the issue, and VBA’s electronic reminder was ineffective. Errors for veterans being paid compensation at the housebound rate were due to ineffective training and a multi-step process for entering temporary housebound codes in the electronic system. VBA staff were also confused as to the requirements for use of the SMC Calculator. Finally, VBA has not clarified the meaning of “substantially confined” for housebound in-fact determinations. Veterans entitled to statutory housebound benefits did not consistently receive correct benefits decisions. Based on sample projection results, we estimated errors in 33,400 of 186,000 cases. We estimated that these errors resulted in veterans being underpaid $110.1 million through February 2015, and receiving recurring underpayments of $1.8 million per month as of March 2015. In addition, we estimated that VBA staff delayed paying veterans $54.3 million. Errors for veterans receiving compensation at the housebound rate also resulted in incorrect benefits decisions. Based on sample projection results, we estimated errors in 2,600 of 9,800 cases for which veterans’ combined evaluations were 90 percent or less. We estimated that these errors resulted in veterans being overpaid $44.3 million through February 2015, with ongoing overpayments of $1.1 million per month as of March 2015. These overpayments included $21.4 million in benefits that were improper, which were ongoing at a rate of $678,000 per month. The remaining overpayments of $22.9 million were not supported by adequate documentation and were ongoing at a rate of $427,000 per month. Veterans’ monthly recurring overpayments generally continue for at least 5 months. We recommended the then Acting Under Secretary for Benefits establish plans to update the electronic system, conduct reviews of cases in which housebound benefits are being paid, provide updated training, remind staff to use the SMC Calculator in all SMC cases, and clarify the meaning of “substantially confined.” The Principal Deputy Under Secretary for Benefits concurred with our recommendations and stated that VBA will conduct an annual review of SMC housebound benefits with the initial review in October 2016, and then, each October thereafter. Compensation Service has provided business requirements for changes to the Veterans Benefits Management System Rating application to prevent staff from completing a decision without considering potential eligibility to statutory housebound benefits any time a veteran has a single 100 percent evaluation and to add a requirement to discontinue temporary housebound benefits when a veteran no longer meets the criteria. VBA has required decision-makers to use the SMC Calculator and to include the worksheet results in the claims folder. This requirement is included in updated mandatory training for all Rating Veterans Service Representatives and Decision Review Officers. Furthermore, VBA has initiated a working group to clarify the statutory term “substantially confined” to ensure consistent application of this benefit. VBA plans to complete these actions by December 2016. Finally, the Principal Deputy Under Secretary for Benefits stated that VBA has identified approximately 11,600 veterans being paid compensation at the housebound rate with a combined evaluation of 90 percent or less. VBA will review the cases and certification will be provided to the OIG. The target completion date for these actions is April 2017. The Principal Deputy Under Secretary for Benefits’ planned corrective actions are responsive to the recommendations, and we will follow up as required. To address Recommendation 1, VBA released VBMS 11.0 on June 17, 2016, which included new functionality that prevents staff from completing decisions without considering potential eligibility to statutory housebound benefits any time a veteran has a single 100 percent evaluation. Therefore, we consider Recommendation 1 closed and we will follow up as required.
Owner of Sham ‘Veteran-Owned’ Company Sentenced for $100 Million Fraud
Massachusetts man receives a sentence of 30 months in prison and a fine of $1 million for a $100 million Service-Disabled Veteran-Owned Small Business (SDVOSB) set-aside contracting fraud scheme.
Independence Man Sentenced for Receiving Undeserved Veterans Benefits
Missouri man sentenced to over four years in federal prison for benefits fraud and other offenses.
Milan Man Sentenced to One Year in Prison for Theft of Veterans Benefits
Illinois man sentenced to one year in federal prison for benefits fraud totaling $178,789.
Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee, thank you for the opportunity to discuss the Office of Inspector General’s (OIG) June 2016 report, Veterans Benefits Administration: Audit of Compensation and Pension Benefit Payments to Incarcerated Veterans. I am accompanied by Mr. Nick Dahl, Director, OIG’s Audits and Evaluations Division in Bedford, Massachusetts.