(Veterans for Common Sense – Jan. 6, 2016) – According to a Tampa Bay Times news story surrounding a new VA inspector general report, more than 41,000 pieces of mail containing veterans’ disability claim documentation were unopened during a recent inspection at the troubled Bay Pines VA Regional office that serves the state of Florida. (Tampa Bay Times, “Report: Veterans’ claims backlogged by the thousands at St. Petersburg VA office,” Kathleen McGrory reporting, Jan. 6, 2016). The delays resulted in an increase in backlog wait times of nearly 18 percent between 2014 and 2015.
According to Wednesday’s reporting in Florida’s largest newspaper, “more than 41,900 mail packages with unprocessed veterans’ claims materials piled up at the Veterans Affairs office in St. Petersburg last year,” along with “1,600 boxes of claims materials from the St. Petersburg office,” at a scanning facility in Georgia.
“We observed a large amount of hard copy sensitive veteran information haphazardly commingled with contract company documentation, excess office furniture, and empty computer boxes that appeared to be trash,” wrote VA inspectors.
Local VA officials predictably downplayed the seriousness of the findings, just the latest in a growing string of scathing inspector general reports about the Florida VA facility that has been found to be among the worst in the nation.
Veterans for Common Sense continues to be a watchdog on VA’s benefits and medical research operations, including frequently assisting news reporters.
The Tampa Bay Times again quoted Veterans for Common Sense in this latest story about the facility:
“Anthony Hardie, director of the national advocacy organization Veterans for Common Sense, pointed out that this is the latest in a string of troubling audits focused on the St. Petersburg office.
In September, the inspector general reviewed 90 disability claims that were filed at the office, and found 19 percent had been inaccurately handled. One year earlier, an inspector general report characterized lost and misfiled records as a “major issue” for the St. Petersburg operation.
“It’s outrageous that there are still problems there,” said Hardie, who lives in Bradenton. “I don’t know when the VA secretary is going to take action to clean house, but that’s what needs to happen.”
The new backlog and latest serious issues at the St. Petersburg VA office earned the scorn of an array of Congressional members on both sides of the aisle, including Rep. Cathy Castor (D-FL), Rep. Gus Bilirakis (R-FL), and U.S. Sen. and presidential candidate Marco Rubio (R-FL).
The Tampa Bay Times on Jan. 8 published a sharply critical editorial in response to the latest expose of serious issues at the St. Petersburg VA office, calling on the VA to “move quickly to fix this systemic problem”, which it described as, “shockingly inefficient,” “horrible customer service,” and “inexcusable.” According to the editorial:
“The VA’s revelations about this unacceptable backlog in claims is the latest in a long line of unacceptable service issues with the agency. For years, veterans have complained about long wait times to get claims processed, secure appointments with doctors or get equipment. More recently, complaints have surfaced about the mishandling of veterans’ private health records and attempts to punish whistleblowers, some who say they have been targeted and had their medical records viewed by VA personnel without their permission. After each accusation of wrongdoing, the VA has repeatedly said it is committed to making improvements. But the changes occur at a ridiculously slow pace — if at all.”
“The unprocessed claims are more than pieces of paper. They represent the lives and struggles of veterans who are in need of care. The VA dishonors veterans’ sacrifices by treating their claims with such callous disrespect.”
As noted in the editorial, the Bay Pines VA Regional Office in St. Petersburg has been the subject of numerous critical reports, stemming back years. In recent months:
*A May 15, 2014 VA Inspector General report found that the St. Petersburg office had serious issues with veterans’ claims records, including records stored haphazardly with many lost and misfiled records, unopened mail, and serious issues with date-stamping newly received claims documentation.
*On January 30, 2015, McClatchyDC reported on an initiative by two Florida Congressmen seeking answers on the St. Petersburg VA’s “unacceptably long” delays in processing veterans’ disability claims. (McClatchyDC, “Congressmen push VA for answers on ‘unacceptably long’ delays in Fla.,” Jan. 30, 2015, Chris Adams reporting). VCS was quoted as saying, “Veterans who are waiting on their claims to be approved should not have to suffer through the incompetence of the St. Pete regional office,” and noted the problems in the St. Petersburg office have existed for years.
*On August 17, 2015, a scathing VA inspector general report cited the St. Petersburg VA regional office for serious filing errors, unopened mail containing sensitive veterans’ claims documentation, and unrecorded claims documents found in shred bins.
*On August 25, 2015, another critical VA inspector general report found that 19 percent of the 90 claims sampled were in error — roughly one in every five — resulting in 54 overpayments, underpayments, and other errors.
*An August 31 news story quoted VCS as saying veterans will continue to suffer, “until VA leadership in Washington steps in and takes serious steps to right the ship at this badly broken VA regional office in St. Petersburg.” The issues also received the scorn of Republican Congressman Vern Buchanan (R-FL-13), who was quoted as saying, “It’s obvious much work needs to be done to ensure our veterans are getting the care they need and deserve.”
How to Help
Are you a U.S. military veteran who is also a Florida resident (Florida only at this time) and you have recently experienced any of the following while you were a Florida resident:
- VA “lost” your claims documentation?
- VA put you through unacceptably long delays in processing your VA service-connected disability claim?
- VA denied your service-connected VA disability claim for one or more “presumptive” conditions (“presumptive” only at this time, please — such as Agent Orange or Gulf War or other VA “presumptive” conditions)?
If you are and were a Florida resident veteran and you answered yes to any of the three questions above, please share what happened to you bey emailing Tampa Bay Times reporter Alexandra Zayas at firstname.lastname@example.org and copying your email to Veterans for Common Sense at email@example.com .
Read the full Tampa Bay Times story here: “Report: Veterans’ claims backlogged by the thousands at St. Petersburg VA office,” Kathleen McGrory reporting, Jan. 6, 2016.
Read the full VA Inspector General report here: “Veterans Benefits Administration: Review of Alleged Problems with Veterans Benefits Management System and Claims Processing,” VA-OIG 14-04816-72, Jan. 6, 2016.