November 19, 2008 – Doubts were raised Wednesday about whether the Bush administration can do anything to restore confidence in the Veterans Affairs Department following the discovery last month of almost 500 key benefits claims documents in shredding bins at regional offices.
But the problem, initially discovered by teams of auditors from the VA inspector general’s office, didn’t exactly shock the veterans’ community. Veterans have complained for decades about VA losing or destroying claims documents, making an already complicated process even more difficult to deal with.
Veterans’ advocates attending a roundtable discussion arranged by the House Veterans Affairs Committee said VA’s admission of mishandling documents is a sign of the fundamental problems that veterans have seen for years.
Rick Weidman, executive director for government affairs of Vietnam Veterans of America, said the only real news is that VA now acknowledged the problem.
“Shredding is not the issue,” he said, calling instead for focus on “the integrity of the process.”
Rep. Harry Mitchell, D-Ariz., said he is worried that leaving key documents to be shredded is a sign of a larger workload problem and pressure to meet production quotas. Mitchell said it has led him to wonder whether VA officials have been completely honest when they said they had all of the resources they needed to handle claims.
Retired Vice Adm. Patrick Dunne, VA’s undersecretary for benefits, said the problem reflects poor document handling procedures, not an effort to prevent veterans from getting what is due them.
The ultimate answer, he said, is a completely electronic filing system in which key records are scanned into a computer – although a paperless claims processing system won’t be available before 2010.
A short-term solution, which might not be fully in place before President-elect Barack Obama takes office in January, sets new document management procedures for every VA regional office – including establishing records management officers and requiring two people to review any document before shredding.
Rep. Bob Filner, D-Calif., the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee chairman, said the fact that a review found 41 of the 57 VA regional offices had crucial documents in shredding bins is an “intolerable situation.”
“These actions completely shatter confidence in the whole VA system,” Filner said. “This episode has further strengthened my belief that we need to have accountability in [VA] and leadership that demands accountability. These incidents and mistakes, all occurring to the detriment of our veterans and never to their benefit, remind me more of the Keystone Cops than a supportive organization dedicated to taking care of our veterans.”
The VA has announced special procedures for veterans who believe lost records have led to the denial or delay of a benefits claim.