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VA probe finds disarray at St. Pete benefits office

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Published:   |   Updated: May 16, 2014 at 12:09 PM

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When investigators from the Veterans Affairs Office of Inspector General visited the Veterans Benefits Administration’s St. Petersburg Regional Office in March, they found a mess.

So many files on patient claims were stacked in piles that “personnel have encountered difficulties locating files and in moving banks of files in the permanent shelving units due to the volume and weight of the files,” according to an interim report by the VA Office of Inspector General’s office released Thursday. “During our interviews, (regional office) employees stated that lost and misfiled records in the file room were a major issue.”

The inspection of the St. Petersburg Regional Office is part of the Office of Inspector General’s ongoing “Audit of VBA’s Efforts to Effectively Obtain Service Treatment Records and Official Military Personnel Files,” according to the interim report.

In response, Veterans Benefits Administration officials said they have since addressed two of three recommended changes and are working on the third. VA officials could not be immediately reached for comment early Friday morning.

In an effort to figure out just how bad the problem was, investigators requested 10 hardcopy claims files for review. One file “was not available because it could not be located,” according to the interim report. The regional office “maintains a log of claims files that were ‘rebuilt’ because the originals were lost or misfiled. We obtained the log, which contained 27 rebuilt claims files since September 2013. (Regional office) management reported having a longer history of lost files, but said an employee inadvertently overwrote some records.”

Investigators also found problems with how the office handles its mail.

Documents and files are delivered to the intake processing center, where employees sort and prepare evidence mail, including Service Treatment Records and copies of Official Military Personnel Files. Claims processors use evidence mail to further develop and make decisions on veterans’ disability claims. Intake processing center employees also prepare documents and files for shipping to a vendor that scans documents into the Veterans Benefits Management System. For documents and files that are not shipped, employees sort and place the evidence in mail bins for claims processors to obtain when needed for additional development on pending claims, according to the interim report.

Regional office management reported the intake processing center currently maintains 225 individual mail bins, containing about 12,375 pieces of evidence mail — evidence that should be associated with claims folders, according to the interim report.

However, investigators found that personnel there did not stamp Service Treatment Records files and copies of Official Military Personnel files at the time of receipt.

“Without this information, (regional office) management cannot review and assess potential issues and delays with receiving and processing STR and OMPF requests,” according to the interim report. Office employees “reported that there was about a three-week delay in sorting and processing evidence mail received from the mailroom.”

Problems created by the delays may have been exacerbated by the Veterans Benefits Administration’s move in December to cut the time frame for initial federal records requests from 60 to 30 days, and from 30 days to 15 days for follow-up requests, according to the interim report.

“This delay could also result in employees improperly denying claims because evidence mail needed to substantiate the claim had not been sorted and processed,” the interim report stated. The interim report does not contain any citations of improperly denied claims.

The problems were so severe that the Veterans Affairs Office of Inspector General only issued an interim report.

“We did not follow all of the reporting standards because we determined these issues required attention before we would issue our audit report,” the interim report states. “Reporting, as an interim advisory, helps VBA take actions required to address the identified issues. We believe that the work performed provided sufficient evidence for our conclusion.”

Inspectors recommended that the Under Secretary for Benefits take three actions and report progress by April 28.

Identify and implement options to help alleviate the file storage issues at the regional office in St. Petersburg.

Ensure mailroom personnel date stamp service treatment record files and copies of official military personnel files on the day they are received at the regional office in St. Petersburg.

Identify and implement options to improve timeliness of evidence mail processing at the regional office in St. Petersburg.

Veterans Benefits Administration officials agreed with all the recommendations and said they have since dealt with the second and third ones and are asking that the VA OIG consider those recommendations closed.

The St. Petersburg regional office mailroom “is now date stamping all incoming service treatment record files and copies of official military personnel files on the day they are received at the regional office,” according to St. Petersburg regional office officials.

To address this issue of timeliness of evidence processing, “10 employees were detailed to work evidence mail for approximately two weeks,” St. Petersburg regional office officials stated in their response to the inspection. “This resulted in the RO timeliness of evidence mail being reduced from 21 days to five days. In addition, the Veterans Service Center permanently assigned five new Veterans Service Representatives to the Intake Processing Center team to specifically work evidence mail. The RO also received authority to hire five additional Claims Assistants that will be on station by May 31, and assigned to the IPC to maintain timeliness of evidence mail processing.”

The St. Petersburg regional office “was given authority to retire 100,000 claims folders to the VBA Records Management Center and hire 20 temporary file clerks to support this effort,” St. Petersburg regional office officials responded in the interim report. “The first shipment of 50,000 files will be sent to the RMC by July 3, and the remaining 50,000 files will arrive by Aug. 1. This file relocation, along with the natural progression of files being shipped to the scanning vendor, will alleviate the file storage issues at the (regional office).”

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