Some documents related to veterans’ disability claims are getting thrown out at Veterans Affairs Department regional offices, but the VA and its inspector general disagree whether the problem is a systemic issue or one that can be explained by human error.
The VA Office of Inspector General conducted announced reviews at 10 VA regional offices last summer. It sorted through a total of 438,000 documents that regional offices set aside for shredding. Of those documents, 155 of them were related to veterans’ claims. The IG said 130 of them were not appropriate to shred, meaning those missing documents affected or could have affected a veteran’s claim.
“VBA might not consider the number of documents we found as a systemic issue,” Brent Arronte, deputy assistant inspector general for audits and evaluations for the VA OIG, told the House Veterans Affairs Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs Subcommittee at a June 15 hearing. “However, we consider this to be a systemic issue in the sense that policies were not followed across the nation at the offices we looked at.”
For Beth McCoy, deputy undersecretary for field operations at the Veterans Benefits Administration, that number of documents that went to departmental shred bins is small and can be explained simply as a human mistake. The error rate for those 10 regional offices, according to VA calculations, is 0.0025 percent, McCoy said.
“It’s the way we’re doing math,” Arronte said. “We did look at 400,000 documents, but we went through those documents to specifically identify claims related documents. If you want to do the division, the 0.065 percent that Ms. McCoy is talking about I guess is one way to look at it. But we narrowed our universe down to only those claims related documents that we found.”
This distinction frustrated the committee, because it’s heard similar arguments from the VA before. The department in April said 97 percent of veterans received an appointment at a VA medical center within 30 days. But a Government Accountability Office review found wait times ranged from 21 to 72 days. Again, the discrepancy came from the different criteria the VA and GAO each used to calculate wait times.
“[That] makes it very difficult for this committee, as we move forward to try to deal with this issue, along with many other issues we’re having with the VA similar to this, to try to get [it] under control in a system that really works,” Rep. Mike Bost (R-Ill.) said. “Unfortunately, I keep seeing the VA come forward and say … it’s not our fault, or it’s not as bad as everyone says.”
This isn’t the first time the committee has addressed this particular issue. VA leaders testified before the committee in 2009, after the department’s inspector general found more than 450 claims-related documents that VA employees had set aside for shredding at VA regional offices around the country.
The VA is updating records management guidance for its employees now, and it expects the new policy will be final within the next six to eight weeks, McCoy said. The department will then train its employees on the new policy.
“Back in 2009, the VA’s answer was similar to your answer now, more training, more training,” Subcommittee Chairman Ralph Abraham (R-La.) said to McCoy. “And now in 2016, the VA solution is to provide more training, better training. How can we as a committee be assured that this training … would actually result in better management of these records?”
Training will help, McCoy said, but the most helpful solution has been the department’s new electronic claims processing system, which now handles nearly 100 percent of disability compensation claims. The new Veterans Benefits Management System helped the VA make significant strides in tackling the backlog of unprocessed claims, which fell from 611,000 cases in March 2013 to a little more than 75,000 by the end of 2015, the department said Tuesday.
The electronic system alleviates some of the risks that come with processing paper claims, McCoy said. The VA converted more than 6 million files into electronic folders for veterans between 2012 and 2015, she said. The department also works with a contractor to scan and digitize documents more quickly.
“While VBA’s transformation to an electronic claims processing system has significantly minimized the flow of paper documents to our regional offices, a small volume of paper documents do continue to be received in the [regional offices],” McCoy said in her testimony before the subcommittee.
Though the new electronic system should prevent most of the risks that come with handling cases by hand, Arronte said his concern now shifts to the security of the processing system, particularly the safeguards put in place to protect veterans’ personally identifiable information.