Employees said lost and misfiled records were a "major issue" at the Department of Veterans Affairs regional office in Pinellas County that handles veterans' disability claims in Tampa Bay and throughout Florida, auditors say in a new report.
A VA's inspector general report released Thursday says a March inspection of the agency's regional office in St. Petersburg found a claims file room "overfilled with records," causing difficulties in locating paperwork.
The regional office has been forced to "rebuild" 27 veteran claims files since September because original documents were lost, the IG said. The number was probably higher, regional office management reported, but the log tracking such cases was itself accidentally destroyed.
In addition, mail room personnel did not date-stamp records as they were received, the IG said, and there was a three-week delay just in sorting and processing arriving claims evidence.
"This delay could also result in employees improperly denying claims because evidence mail needed to substantiate the claim had not been sorted and processed," wrote Linda Halliday, assistant inspector general for VA audits and evaluations.
Regional VA officials say they are already addressing problems noted by the IG by moving records elsewhere and assigning additional personnel.
The IG report was described as "unacceptable and of grave concern" by U.S. Rep. David Jolly, R-Indian Shores. "This troubling audit continues to underscore the complete failure of leadership within" the VA, Jolly said.
The audit is part of a national VA review of how effectively the agency locates service treatment records and official military personnel files. Problems with such paperwork can often delay claims for benefits. Veterans say lost claims documents are one of their greatest frustrations in dealing with the VA.
Problems were serious enough that the IG released an interim audit rather than wait for a more complete report.
The audit comes as the VA is facing mounting criticism on several fronts, including accusations that several VA facilities outside Florida may have fudged statistics on appointment wait times to make themselves look better. The VA also is fending off reports in Florida and elsewhere of veterans who have died because of treatment delays.
None of these cases, the VA says, involves Tampa Bay's two VA hospitals, the James A. Haley VA Medical Center in Tampa and the C.W. Bill Young VA Medical Center in Pinellas.
Paperwork problems at the regional office involve the often-complex disability claims veterans file to receive either a VA pension or medical care. Such claims can involve hundreds of pages of medical records, letters from doctors, and personnel records showing where a veteran served and detailing injuries or wounds suffered in combat or elsewhere.
A lack of space forced VA claims employees in St. Petersburg to stack loose boxes of records around the perimeter of a storage room.
"As a result … personnel have encountered difficulties locating files and in moving banks of files in the permanent shelving units due to the volume and weight of the files," the IG said.
Employees told auditors that lost and misplaced files were "a major issue" in the office. Auditors requested the hard copies of 10 claims files for review. One of those files, the IG said, could not be found at all.
The regional office declined substantive comment beyond saying it is fixing those issues.
The regional office told the IG it was sending 100,000 inactive claims folders to a VA records center in St. Louis to clear space and had hired 20 temporary file clerks to help. Those records will be transferred by August, the office said.
And the regional office told the IG it had assigned 10 employees for two weeks to alleviate the mail backlog, reducing delays from 21 to five days. Additionally, five employees have been permanently assigned to help handle incoming records, and five others will be hired by the end of May, officials said. Incoming mail is now being time-stamped.
"VA is transitioning to a paperless claims processing system which will eliminate all paper claims folders and improve the efficiency of claims processing and service to veterans," the VA said in a statement.
The regional office currently has 36,622 disability claims pending. Of that total, 21,222 are older than 125 days, down from 35,924 older than 125 days as of March 2013, the VA says.
William R. Levesque can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3432.