The department said it's rare, but workers said they think the problem is more common that acknowledged.
PHILADELPHIA - In July 2010, a Department of Veterans Affairs employee named Kristen Ruell was updating a benefit claim when she noticed something odd. What should have been an increase of about $2,000 in a monthly payment to the widow of a veteran showed up on her computer screen as $21,000.
She began digging into computer files for an answer. What she found surprised and worried her: The department's database contained duplicate records for the widow, and the system was trying to pay her twice. It was also recommending a retroactive payment dating back months -- though the widow had already been paid for that period.
After seeing the same problem in other claims, Ruell, who works on a quality review team at a veterans pension management center in Philadelphia, says she raised red flags with her bosses. If she was just noticing the duplicate payments, was it not likely that the department had inadvertently overpaid many other people for years?
Two years later, that concern has not been resolved, Ruell and several other pension management workers say.
The department says duplicate payments are rare -- perhaps fewer than 100 a year. A robust system of checks and balances, human and digital, routinely prevents a vast majority of such payments, said David McLenachen, the director of the department's pensions and fiduciary service.
But Ruell and several of her colleagues believe that the duplicate payments are far more common, and costly, than their leadership acknowledges.
"I'm just bothered the way money is wasted and no one cares," said Ruell, 37, a lawyer who has worked at the pension center for five years.
The issue is starting to get attention in Washington. The department's Office of Inspector General has begun looking into it, a spokeswoman said, and Rep. Michael Fitzpatrick, a Democrat from the Philadelphia area says he will ask that the department provide an accounting of duplicate payments by Oct. 31.
"No one has a real handle on this," Fitzpatrick said.
The department did not allow Ruell's supervisors to talk about the duplicate payments. But McLenachen disputed her assertions. "Our field employees are required to follow procedures," he said.
The veterans pension system, part of the sprawling Veterans Benefits Administration, pays more than $4 billion a year in benefits.
A few days ago, a fellow employee brought Ruell a case in which the computer calculated that a widow was owed $28,000. It was a duplicate payment, and Ruell corrected it. The system had worked. But it does not always, she insists.
"We're not catching it," she said.