Newspaper Editorial: VA Puts Credibility Through Shredder

St. Petersburg Times (Florida)

November 11, 2008 – When veterans need health care, they at least expect their claims will be fairly evaluated. Yet Department of Veterans Affairs investigators have found that VA benefits offices around the country had documents stacked in a queue for shredding that were key in making decisions on veterans’ pension and disability claims.

The VA has been dogged for years by accusations that it is at best careless and at worst deliberate in its misplacement of veterans’ documents. Now it appears as though there is truth to some of the allegations. An internal review found that nearly 500 documents were put in shredding bins improperly. Such documents were found at two-thirds of the VA’s 57 benefits offices, including at Bay Pines in St. Petersburg.

Investigations are continuing, but the findings so far demonstrate that the VA needs to employ more electronic record-keeping. The agency processes 162-million pages a year. With all this paper-pushing, important material is bound to get misplaced or lost. And when that happens, it can delay a determination on a benefits claim for months or years, and lead to an improper denial.

We remember the botched attempt at computerization at Bay Pines VA Medical Center, where more than $100-million was spent on a system that failed to perform properly. But a technology transition for the VA’s benefits offices is necessary – albeit one with tighter controls and oversight. And at some point, every veteran should have Web-based access to his claim file.

Another issue is the VA’s compensation system, which encourages adjudicators to move claims rather than judge them correctly. Documents such as key medical assessments may get destroyed as a way to make denials easier. These kinds of shenanigans have been unearthed before.

A problem can’t be solved until it’s identified. Now that it’s clear that improper document shredding is occurring, the VA has a big job to do, starting with changing the culture of carelessness that seems endemic. A new policy that requires more oversight of shredding should help, but Congress should proceed with plans to take a closer look.

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