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Veterans Affairs union rep seeks whistle-blower status after dismissal

Javier Soto, a former VA claims employee, last week filed a whistle-blower complaint against the VA with the Merit System Protections Board to win back the job he lost June 30 when Kerrie Witty, right, director of the VA's regional benefits office near Seminole, dismissed him. [JAMES BORCHUCK | Times]
Published Nov. 24, 2014

Kerrie Witty says the Department of Veterans Affairs does not tolerate retaliation or intimidation against employees who speak out about problems at the agency.

Witty, director of the VA's regional benefits office near Seminole, said Friday that her office "encourages employees to bring to the attention of their managers and supervisors shortcomings in the delivery of services to veterans or any perceived violations of law or official wrongdoing."

Javier Soto begs to differ.

Soto, 48, a former VA claims employee, last week filed a whistle-blower complaint against the VA with the Merit System Protections Board to win back the job he lost June 30 when Witty dismissed him. That dismissal came days after Soto, a 13-year VA employee, gave his bosses a report that he says found "fraud, waste … or mismanagement" in a program that decides veteran disability claims.

Soto's case has attracted considerable attention. He testified in July before the U.S. House Veterans Affairs Committee.

His dismissal was one of several reasons cited for a "no confidence" vote against Witty, taken earlier this month by Local 1594 of the American Federation of Government Employees.

"I want my job back," Soto said. "It's a great job. It's important work. I just don't see the need for the VA's adversarial culture. Why not work with your employees to make the system better?"

Witty will not discuss Soto's case or the allegations he raised about the claims process, saying she cannot comment on an ongoing legal matter. Witty's supervisors in Washington, D.C., say they support her leadership of an office with about 900 employees.

Soto, who is still executive vice president of the local VA employees union, said in a two-hour interview with the Tampa Bay Times that the VA's claims rating process in Florida, much of it based in Pinellas County, breeds errors and unfairly pressures employees to close claims at all costs to eliminate a backlog.

Soto described a numbers-obsessed system that he said hurts veterans by rushing the decision process, leading to denials of benefits and forcing veterans to appeal decisions.

Claims employees, he said, often receive conflicting instructions on how to decide claims and do not receive adequate training. That, Soto said, leads to errors that harm the agency, employees and veterans.

"The pressure to focus on production and complete cases has resulted in less attention on quality to meet numbers goals," Soto told the Veterans Affairs Committee in July. "In order to move cases faster, it seems the focus is on less time for veterans to submit evidence or for the VA to obtain it (in order) to close the record faster."

In the interview with the Times, Soto pointed to one practice that involved the VA making "provisional" decisions on claims that took the cases off the VA's books, improving numbers, though the veteran might wait months longer for a final decision.

"It's all contributed to a reduction in the claims backlog," Soto said. "But have we really reduced the backlog when we're simply shifting the initial claims coming into the VA and turning them into appeals, knowing only 10 percent of veterans will appeal?"

Soto started working at the VA regional office in Pinellas in 2010 as a "rating benefits services representative" who examined evidence and decided claims submitted by veterans seeking VA disability or medical benefits. He had previously worked as a VA criminal investigator. In 2011, he transferred to a VA claims office in Orlando, which is a smaller satellite office of regional headquarters.

In June, Soto produced a report that was critical of the VA's system for ensuring accurate claims decisions. Within days, Soto said, he was laid off without any prior notice.

A letter Soto received notifying him of the dismissal did not note any performance issues. It said simply, "Your services are no longer required."

Soto said he found that line particularly irksome since the VA was pushing employees hard to reduce the claims backlog and was, at the time, looking to hire additional claims raters.

Even amid talk of reforms at the agency in recent months, Soto said he fears a change in management culture has not trickled down to the regional office.

He said management refuses to work with the union to resolve differences or to work on improving the claims process. Witty, though, has said the union's criticisms are incorrect.

"I think I did a good job as a claims rater," Soto said, acknowledging he may never again work at the agency. "I don't think that door is open to me anymore. I want to make sure this doesn't ever happen to anyone else who tries to change the system."

Contact William R. Levesque at levesque@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3432.

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