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VA hopes new shredding guidelines protect claims seekers

The Department of Veterans Affairs is finalizing a sweeping new records policy to prevent the destruction of claims documents in benefits offices around the nation.

The policy comes as the VA continues to investigate improper shredding at a St. Petersburg veterans benefits office and 56 other regional offices in nearly every state.

The policy calls for the appointment of a records control team in Washington, D.C., to oversee the handling of documents. It also would lead to the hiring of records officers in each benefits office to do the same on a local level.

And before shredding any document, two VA employees, including a supervisor, would have to sign off, according to a draft of the policy obtained by the St. Petersburg Times on Friday.

The VA said it also notified members of Congress on Friday about the pending policy, parts of which the agency said have already been implemented.

"It's a strong policy," said Jerry Manar, deputy director of national veterans service at Veterans of Foreign Wars in Washington. "It's almost draconian."

The policy comes after the discovery last month of nearly 500 veterans' claims documents improperly set aside for shredding in 41 VA benefits offices.

The documents, which had no duplicates in VA files, could have been crucial in deciding if an individual veteran received a pension or disability payment.

That total includes 13 documents found in shredding bins in the VA's busiest benefits office at Bay Pines in St. Petersburg, where the agency's inspector general is still conducting an audit.

Bay Pines is the home benefits office for Florida's 1.8-million veterans and the 330,000 who live in the Tampa Bay area.

VA leaders met with representatives of the largest veterans service groups in the nation Friday and told them they expect to enact this new policy within 10 days, perhaps with minor revisions.

In the meantime, a national ban on all shredding in VA benefits offices remains in effect.

Manar said the new policy is so rigid that he believes it will lead to a drastic reduction in shredding simply because doing so would be too inconvenient.

Some veterans representatives question if the policy will go beyond the shredding bin to assure paperwork is not lost or destroyed in other ways, such as when workers bring documents home.

"This solves a problem," said Dave Autry, a spokesman for Disabled American Veterans. "I'm not sure it solves the entire problem."

A VA spokeswoman said she could not comment on the new document policy because she had not yet been told about it.

Improper shredding is "a big problem, and we've got to take care of it," said Alison Aikele, a VA spokeswoman. "Even one document is too many."

The chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs plans to hold a hearing later this month to examine the destruction of veterans claims documents.

In some cases, the VA says, employees may have deliberately and improperly set aside claims documents for shredding. Two VA employees, neither in St. Petersburg, have been placed on paid leave pending further investigation.

At one of the VA's busiest benefits office in New York City, four VA management employees have been placed on administrative leave, the VA has confirmed.

That office's director and assistant director also have been transferred.

The VA first denied any of these leaves were related to shredding but reversed itself when presented with information obtained by the Times. The agency now says one of those suspensions was because of shredding allegations.

The VA said other suspensions were because employees may have doctored records indicating they more timely process claims than they actually did.

William R. Levesque can be reached at levesque@sptimes.com or at (813) 269-5306

VA hopes new shredding guidelines protect claims seekers 10/31/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 4, 2008 1:39pm]
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