ST. PETERSBURG — Employees in the nation's busiest Department of Veterans Affairs benefits office at Bay Pines in St. Petersburg improperly placed eight documents in shredding bins, the VA said on Wednesday.
The discovery during a random, one-time survey points to a disquieting possibility that the VA acknowledges it is now investigating:
Have workers for months or even years destroyed untold numbers of documents critical in deciding if the VA owes a veteran a pension or disability payment?
"That's the obvious question," said Mike Walcoff, the VA's deputy undersecretary for benefits in Washington. "We can't answer that at this point."
The VA's 56 regional offices began investigating allegations of improperly shredded documents last week after the agency's Inspector General found problems in four cities — St. Louis, Detroit, St. Petersburg and Waco, Texas.
Of the eight documents in St. Petersburg, the VA said seven would have been critical in deciding a veteran's claim. The eighth document had already been processed but should have been returned to the veteran rather than marked for shredding.
"This is not something we're comfortable with," Walcoff said. "I won't say anything to diminish the importance of the documents veterans send us. We didn't take care of some of them like we should."
The St. Petersburg benefits office, covering the entire state and its 1.8-million veterans, processed 60,000 pension or disability claims last year.
As the VA and Inspector General continue their investigations, the VA is extending a national ban on all shredding in its benefits offices until working out a policy to safeguard documents.
The VA could not provide information on the findings in other benefits offices around the country. And the Inspector General — the VA's independent watchdog — isn't finished with its separate inquiry.
The VA has scheduled a morning conference call today with the representatives of the six largest veterans service groups in the nation to provide an update on the VA's investigation.
Joe Davis, spokesman for Veterans of Foreign Wars, said he is worried that findings of improperly discarded papers point to a much bigger problem.
"This could go back many years," Davis said. "It's all about attention to detail. VA employees have to remember that the signature on a claims form belongs to a real human being. It's not just a piece of paper."
So far, Walcoff said, the VA doesn't know how the documents in St. Petersburg made their way to the shredding bins or who is responsible. And neither can the VA say if the documents were dumped by accident or on purpose.
In the mid 1990s, two employees of the VA's veterans appeal board in Washington, D.C., acknowledged discarding documents to lighten their work load.
Those cases first came to light on the Web site VAwatchdog.org, which broke the shredding story earlier this month.
Walcoff noted that the VA's benefits offices are among the most paper-intensive bureaucracies in the federal government, processing 162-million pages of paper throughout the nation.
And while the VA is moving increasingly to electronic records, Walcoff said, the transition is far from complete.
Speaking of improper shredding, Walcoff said, "This just screams out at us to move faster so we get to the point where we're not dealing with all that paper."
Lost or misplaced documents are one of the most common complaints by veterans who often wait years for the VA to decide if they are owed a pension or disability payment.
But to veterans, it is usually impossible to prove that the agency has lost their paperwork. So they are often forced to simply send new copies, greatly delaying their claims.
"Until now, all we had was a veteran's statement" that something was lost, Walcoff said. "When we hear those types of comments now, we're certainly going to listen to them in a different light based on what's happened in the last couple of weeks."
Marine veteran Tony Vieria, 66, of St. Petersburg said the VA once denied his medical claim based on another veteran's record. His claim was later approved once the paperwork was straightened out.
"Everybody knows that if you send the VA any original document, you're crazy," Vieria said. "God only knows where it's going to go. You'll never see it again."
William R. Levesque can be reached at (813) 269-5306 or at [email protected]