November 30, 2008 – Air Force veteran David Chini has lost track of all the times the Department of Veterans Affairs lost records he sent to it.
Registered mail? A VA worker signed, and the paperwork vanished. By fax? Chini, 69, of St. Petersburg said the VA claimed it never arrived. Regular mail? Don’t even ask.
And if something doesn’t arrive, the agency threatens to discontinue his medical benefits because Chini isn’t sending the papers it needs.
“It’s just totally demoralizing,” he said.
Recent revelations that workers in 41 of 57 VA regional benefits offices, including St. Petersburg, improperly set aside hundreds of claims records for shredding came as no surprise to veterans.
The VA, critics say, has long operated in a veritable culture of lost paper and was losing records many years before this latest scandal. Lost paperwork sometimes leads to delayed, denied or abandoned claims for medical or financial assistance.
And it leaves some questioning if workers lose it deliberately to ease workloads. At least two VA employees outside Florida are being investigated for just that.
“I remain angry that a culture of dishonesty has led to an increased mistrust of the VA within the veteran community,” said Rep. Bob Filner, D-Calif., chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs.
The VA notes it is the most paper-intensive federal bureaucracy, sifting through 162-million pages of claims documents a year.
And while the VA hopes to have largely paperless claims filing by 2012, the size of the agency makes computerization a challenge.
“Until we get out of the paper business, lost documents are something we’re going to have to contend with,” said Mike Walcoff, the VA’s deputy undersecretary for benefits in Washington.
Walcoff said it is unfair to criticize thousands of dedicated VA employees for the failures of a small minority, and said the VA is working hard to improve its performance.
Others remain skeptical, and question why it has taken so long for the agency to move toward digitized records.
“It’s ludicrous that we have the most highly technologically advanced army in the history of the world and still come back home to an antiquated system that is all on paper,” said Rick Weidman, director of governmental relations at Vietnam Veterans of America.
Take a look at one measure of the problem: the Board of Veterans Appeals in Washington, where veterans appeal the denial of claims.
Searching an online database of appeals decisions for “destroyed records” reveals 20,000 cases where those words appear. “Missing files” locates 33,000 cases.
Through VA history, confidential claims papers have been found in some odd places: above ceiling tiles, inside closets, in curbside trash at a VA lawyer’s home, and in one case at the bottom of an elevator shaft.
“It’s a corporate culture of disappearing records,” Weidman said. “It’s just generally a disdain for the individual veteran that needs to be changed.”
But Weidman applauds the VA for moving quickly to suspend shredding nationally after discovering the latest problem and then implementing new policies.
Now it will take the approval of three VA employees before any document is shredded. Records czars are being appointed in all 57 regional offices.
The agency also said it has reminded employees that claims records can’t be stowed in unauthorized areas. Workers who do so can be fired.
And the VA has announced a temporary policy (see accompanying box) allowing, in some cases, veterans to refile crucial paperwork if they think the VA lost it.
“We’re taking the steps that we need to do to get the trust of the veteran community again,” Walcoff said.
He said moving to digital records too quickly would only lead to more problems, though Walcoff noted that much of VA operations are already computerized.
But the VA wants to integrate all its activities in five separate business lines, including insurance, loan programs and medical, an enormously complicated process. That takes time, Walcoff said.
Filner remains wary about any proposed fixes.
“We have heard promises from the VA before,” he said after a Nov. 19 meeting in Washington on shredding with members of his committee, the VA and veteran advocates.
Filner was particularly displeased that he and other members of the veterans committee found out about the shredding problem in news reports, not from the VA.
“The way to build confidence is to tell people about it before it appears in the paper,” Filner said.
Many critics point to one thing as the biggest incentive for workers to “lose” records: incentive bonuses to quickly resolve claims and improve their numbers.
The VA’s Walcoff denied that the agency believes there is any link between bonuses and misplaced paperwork.
Weidman at Vietnam Veterans of America said the VA needs to enforce employee accountability and offer better training and competency tests for anyone deciding a claim.
“Unless the VA changes how it measures work, we will be back here again in eight years doing the same thing,” said Ron Abrams, joint executive director of the National Veterans Legal Services Program.