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Castor, Bilirakis, Rubio upset at veterans service problems in St. Pete

TAMPA — Local members of Congress who routinely deal with the Department of Veterans Affairs are calling for action in the wake of a report that veterans seeking benefits had to wait longer because documents were improperly prepared and stored.

U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor wrote a letter to Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald seeking a meeting to talk about ongoing problems at the VA.

“As we have seen all too often recently, the VA has not met its responsibility to our veterans on a number of fronts,” Castor wrote. “Veterans’ personal information has not been safeguarded with requisite care, our veterans have been forced into excessive and damaging backlog wait times for far too long, and retaliations have been made by the VA against whistleblowers for highlighting inappropriate behavior. I respectfully request that the problems and concerns be addressed immediately.”

On Wednesday, The Tribune reported that the VA Office of Inspector General found several problems at the VA St. Petersburg Regional Office.

Veterans who filed benefits claims there waited longer in 2014 because claims materials weren’t prepared properly, the report found. Inspectors also found that personal information was inadequately stored at a contractor scanning center, posing a risk of identity theft, according to the report by the VA Office of Inspector General.

Because of the problems, the average wait time at the St. Petersburg office increased from 152 days in June 2014 to 179 days the following December, the report says.

Castor was also reacting to a recent ProPublica report that veterans at the Bay Pines VA Medical Center had the highest rate of privacy violation complaints of any center in the nation.

In her letter, Castor said she was hoping to meet with McDonald on a potential upcoming trip to the Tampa area. VA spokeswoman Jan Northstar said she was unaware of any such trip.

U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, vice chair of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, also expressed concern about the VA OIG report.

“This new report is cause for grave concern,” Bilirakis said. “It is clear, despite our best efforts, the VA’s flaws persist. As Vice Chair of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, I remain committed to improving the VA and preventing such delays for our nation’s heroes. These inefficiencies must be addressed immediately so that our Veterans may receive the care they have earned and deserve. ”

Sen. Marco Rubio, who is running for the GOP presidential nomination, also complained.

“Once again, the Department of Veterans Affairs has failed to properly serve our nation’s veterans,” Rubio said. “The thousands of backlogged claims at the St. Petersburg VA is outrageous and intolerable. I hear every day from veterans who will wait years for a decision from the VA on their medical conditions, with the average appeal time being over 3½ years. This is just another example of the lack of transparency and broken bureaucracy found at the VA.”

Rubio used the issue to drum up support for the VA Accountability Act of 2015 — legislation he is pushing that would give the VA secretary additional authorities to hold VA employees accountable.

“This is one commonsense step we can take to ensure that our veterans receive the care they deserve,” he said.

VA officials say they are aware of Castor’s letter and will respond to her.

EDITOR’S NOTE: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described the legislation introduced by U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio.

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