Make us your home page
Instagram

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

VA has a history of losing papers

MJ and David Chini show copies of medical records which they keep because the VA has lost them on numerous occasions.

JAMES BORCHUCK | Times

MJ and David Chini show copies of medical records which they keep because the VA has lost them on numerous occasions.

Air Force veteran David Chini has lost track of all the times the Department of Veterans Affairs lost records he sent to it.

Registered mail? A VA worker signed, and the paperwork vanished. By fax? Chini, 69, of St. Petersburg said the VA claimed it never arrived. Regular mail? Don't even ask.

And if something doesn't arrive, the agency threatens to discontinue his medical benefits because Chini isn't sending the papers it needs.

"It's just totally demoralizing," he said.

Recent revelations that workers in 41 of 57 VA regional benefits offices, including St. Petersburg, improperly set aside hundreds of claims records for shredding came as no surprise to veterans.

The VA, critics say, has long operated in a veritable culture of lost paper and was losing records many years before this latest scandal. Lost paperwork sometimes leads to delayed, denied or abandoned claims for medical or financial assistance.

And it leaves some questioning if workers lose it deliberately to ease workloads. At least two VA employees outside Florida are being investigated for just that.

"I remain angry that a culture of dishonesty has led to an increased mistrust of the VA within the veteran community," said Rep. Bob Filner, D-Calif., chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs.

The VA notes it is the most paper-intensive federal bureaucracy, sifting through 162-million pages of claims documents a year.

And while the VA hopes to have largely paperless claims filing by 2012, the size of the agency makes computerization a challenge.

"Until we get out of the paper business, lost documents are something we're going to have to contend with," said Mike Walcoff, the VA's deputy undersecretary for benefits in Washington.

Walcoff said it is unfair to criticize thousands of dedicated VA employees for the failures of a small minority, and said the VA is working hard to improve its performance.

Others remain skeptical, and question why it has taken so long for the agency to move toward digitized records.

"It's ludicrous that we have the most highly technologically advanced army in the history of the world and still come back home to an antiquated system that is all on paper," said Rick Weidman, director of governmental relations at Vietnam Veterans of America.

Take a look at one measure of the problem: the Board of Veterans Appeals in Washington, where veterans appeal the denial of claims.

Searching an online database of appeals decisions for "destroyed records" reveals 20,000 cases where those words appear. "Missing files" locates 33,000 cases.

Disappearing files

Through VA history, confidential claims papers have been found in some odd places: above ceiling tiles, inside closets, in curbside trash at a VA lawyer's home, and in one case at the bottom of an elevator shaft.

"It's a corporate culture of disappearing records," Weidman said. "It's just generally a disdain for the individual veteran that needs to be changed."

But Weidman applauds the VA for moving quickly to suspend shredding nationally after discovering the latest problem and then implementing new policies.

Now it will take the approval of three VA employees before any document is shredded. Records czars are being appointed in all 57 regional offices.

The agency also said it has reminded employees that claims records can't be stowed in unauthorized areas. Workers who do so can be fired.

And the VA has announced a temporary policy (see accompanying box) allowing, in some cases, veterans to refile crucial paperwork if they think the VA lost it.

"We're taking the steps that we need to do to get the trust of the veteran community again," Walcoff said.

He said moving to digital records too quickly would only lead to more problems, though Walcoff noted that much of VA operations are already computerized.

But the VA wants to integrate all its activities in five separate business lines, including insurance, loan programs and medical, an enormously complicated process. That takes time, Walcoff said.

Filner remains wary about any proposed fixes.

"We have heard promises from the VA before," he said after a Nov. 19 meeting in Washington on shredding with members of his committee, the VA and veteran advocates.

Filner was particularly displeased that he and other members of the veterans committee found out about the shredding problem in news reports, not from the VA.

"The way to build confidence is to tell people about it before it appears in the paper," Filner said.

Many critics point to one thing as the biggest incentive for workers to "lose" records: incentive bonuses to quickly resolve claims and improve their numbers.

The VA's Walcoff denied that the agency believes there is any link between bonuses and misplaced paperwork.

Weidman at Vietnam Veterans of America said the VA needs to enforce employee accountability and offer better training and competency tests for anyone deciding a claim.

Unless the VA changes how it measures work, we will be back here again in eight years doing the same thing," said Ron Abrams, joint executive director of the National Veterans Legal Services Program.

William R. Levesque can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 269-5306.

fast facts

VA lost papers?

A new VA policy allows some veterans whose documents are lost to resubmit paperwork. If a veteran says he sent a document for a disability or pension claim to the VA between April 14, 2007, and this Oct. 14 but it was lost, he can submit it a second time without fear of missing any deadline. The VA said it will give veterans the benefit of the doubt, and none will have to prove he actually sent the document during that time frame. And nobody has to prove that the VA is responsible for the loss. Veterans have until Nov. 17 next year to resubmit lost paperwork.

For veterans who believe documents are missing that were sent to the VA before April 14, 2007, the veteran will have to provide "credible corroborating evidence" he sent the paperwork.

Call the VA at 1-800-827-1000 if you have any questions about this policy or to learn more about claims processing.

VA has a history of losing papers 11/29/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 3, 2008 4:05pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...
  1. Astros rout Yankees to force Game 7 of AL Championship Series

    Ml

    HOUSTON — Justin Verlander pitched seven shutout innings to outduel Luis Severino for the second time, and the Astros bats came alive in their return home as Houston routed the Yankees 7-1 Friday night and forced a decisive Game 7 in the American League Championship Series.

    The Astros’ Brian McCann, who has struggled during the ALCS, breaks a scoreless tie with an RBI double during the fifth inning off Yankees starter Luis Severino.
  2. Review: Faith Hill and Tim McGraw shower love, star power on Tampa's Amalie Arena

    Blogs

    Near the end of their potent new duet Break First, Tim McGraw stopped singing, and let Faith Hill's powerhouse voice take over.

    Faith Hill and Tim McGraw performed at Amalie Arena in Tampa on Oct. 20, 2017.
  3. Senate to take up AUMF debate as Trump defends reaction to Niger attack

    World

    WASHINGTON — The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is taking up a long-awaited debate about authorizing military force against the Islamic State as President Trump comes under unprecedented public scrutiny for his treatment of dead soldiers' families, following an ambush on troops helping to fight Islamic …

  4. In fear and vigilance, a Tampa neighborhood holds its breath

    K12

    TAMPA — There was a time, not long ago, when Wayne Capaz would go for a stroll at night and Christina Rodriguez would shop whenever she wanted. Michael Fuller would go to his night job as a line cook, not too worried about his wife at home.

    More than 50 people gathered and walked in the Southeast Seminole Heights community Friday to pay respects to the victims of three shootings. The crowd took a moment of silence at the corner of 11th Street and East New Orleans where Monica Hoffa was found dead. [JONATHAN CAPRIEL  |  Times]
  5. Fennelly: What's not to like about Lightning's start?

    Lightning Strikes

    BRANDON — No one is engraving the Stanley Cup. No one has begun stuffing the league MVP ballot box for Nikita Kucherov.

    The Lightning, with a win tonight, would match the best start in franchise history, 7-1-1 in the 2003-04 Cup season.