Great news: VA overpaying misclassified workers by millions ... and can't fix it

The VA’s defenders insist that the wait-list scandal demonstrates a need for better funding, but how does the agency ensure that its current funding levels are used efficiently? After all, the VA has seen a 78% increase in funding over the last six budget cycles, and its budget has grown more on a percentage basis than any other Cabinet-level agency during that time. All of that cash got used properly and effectively, right?

Wrong. Huffington Post’s David Wood does solid work in analyzing a recent audit of the VA, which found that as many as 13,000 employees have been misclassified at higher pay rates. Not only that, but even now that the VA has identified the problem, there’s no way to fix it … at least under current law (via Jim Geraghty):

The scandal-plagued Department of Veterans Affairs is systematically overpaying clerks, administrators and other support staff, according to internal audits, draining tens of millions of dollars that could be used instead to ease the VA’s acute shortage of doctors and nurses.

The jobs of some 13,000 VA support staff have been flagged by auditors as potentially misclassified, in many cases resulting in inflated salaries that have gone uncorrected for as long as 14 years.

Sure, but once they found the problem, the VA’s expert managers and executives at least stopped the bleeding, right? Right? Wrong again! In fact, they accelerated the practice and obstructed a required review of hiring practices:

Rather than moving quickly to correct these costly errors, VA officials two years ago halted a broad internal review mandated by federal law. As a result, the overpayments continue.

Moreover, in the two years since thousands of misclassified jobs were identified, hundreds of additional positions have been filled at improperly high salaries. Internal VA documents obtained by The Huffington Post show that between September 2013 and May 2014, for instance, overpayments in annual salaries for the latter jobs alone came to $24.4 million, not counting benefits.

In May alone, senior VA classification specialists identified 284 probably misclassified positions newly posted on the federal jobs site, USAJobs. Once filled, those jobs would result in estimated overpayments of $3.3 million per year.

And now for the pièce de resistance. The VA can easily reclassify these employees, but they can’t lower their salary, thanks to both federal law and their union contract:

Groovy. And maybe all this would be worth it if veterans got timely and expert medical care. After all, just the May overage alone would have paid for twenty specialists, as Wood notes later in his analysis. Instead, Melinda Henneberger reported on Congressional hearings about the care received by veterans battling combat-related physical and mental illness, testimony that was provided by their families … because the veterans committed suicide after being rebuffed by the VA:

Clay Hunt, a Marine who fought in both Iraq and Afghanistan, took his own life in 2011. His parents, Richard and Susan Selke, added more to the “what not to do” list.

●Tell someone who has at last found an antidepressant that works well that he has to change drugs because there’s no generic version available.

●Once that hurdle is cleared, tell him the VA pharmacy doesn’t stock that drug, but it will be mailed to him in seven to 10 days. Ignore all medical advice against stopping anti-depressants cold.

●Now tell him the prescription can’t be refilled because it was written in Colorado rather than Houston, where he’s just moved — and thus he must start all over in the system, and wait to be reevaluated.

●Classify him as only entitled to 30 percent disability pay even though he is so compromised by the symptoms of his post-traumatic stress that he isn’t able to work.

●Lose his paperwork for 18 months, and then five weeks after his death, finally review his appeal and conclude that he should be on full disability. Notify his survivors of the good news.

Be sure to read it all.

Update: Count me in on Melinda’s approach to reform, too: