More than 41,900 mail packages with unprocessed veterans' claims materials piled up at the Veterans Affairs office in St. Petersburg last year, according to a new report by the department's inspector general.
The inspector general also found that 1,600 boxes of claims materials from the St. Petersburg office swamped a scanning facility in Georgia — and raised doubts about whether the information had been securely stored.
"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," investigators wrote in the report.
The findings come amid national and regional concerns about a backlog of veterans' claims. Last year, a report from the U.S. Senate listed the St. Petersburg regional office as the 10th worst performing in the nation in terms of wait time.
"We're obviously not happy with what goes on in the regional office," said Michael Bousher, president of the Pinellas chapter of Vietnam Veterans of America. "They can do a much better job."
In a statement provided Wednesday to the Tampa Bay Times, the Department of Veterans Affairs said it had made "marked improvements" in the processing of mail since the investigation took place.
What's more, in its formal response to the findings, the agency said nearly half of the boxes at the scanning facility had in fact been processed and were awaiting shipment to a storage facility.
VA officials also insisted the information had been kept secure.
"At no time did this storage area contain original, hard copy materials, and controls were in place to prevent improper removal," the agency wrote in its response.
The inspector general's review stemmed from a July 2014 complaint alleging "significant problems" at the Veterans Affairs regional benefits office in St. Petersburg, which serves the entire state.
The report blamed the backlog on a large increase in the volume of veterans' claims filed at the end of 2014, as well as the ongoing transition to a paperless claims process. But it also concluded that employees in the St. Petersburg office had not properly prepared claims materials before sending them to Georgia for scanning.
The inspector general further found the VA "did not provide effective oversight" of CACI International, the information services company contracted to do the scanning.
During a visit to the CACI facility, investigators said they observed "malfunctioning video surveillance of the rear storage area, employees freely roaming in this area, and adjacent unlocked … exit doors to the outside of the building."
"Accordingly, we stated that without implementing effective controls for storing and safeguarding sensitive VA information, hard copy veterans' claims evidence is potentially vulnerable to loss, theft, and misuse to include identity theft or fraud," they wrote.
VA officials conceded that some of the claims materials had been improperly stored by the contractor. But they said the documents had been kept under video surveillance and were always secure.
Officials said the St. Petersburg office, at 9500 Bay Pines Blvd., has been improving the time it takes to process mail. As of October, there were 6,421 packages pending, they said.
But 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."
Contact Kathleen McGrory at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8330. Follow @kmcgrory.
Are you a veteran who has struggled with delays in the compensation and pension disability examination process? Tampa Bay Times reporter Alexandra Zayas would like to hear from you. Reach her at 727-893-8413 or email@example.com