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VA probe finds disarray at St. Pete benefits office

A file room overfilled with records. Lost and misfiled records that became a major issue. Mishandled mail and a three-week delay in processing evidence mail received from the mailroom.

That’s what investigators from the Veterans Affairs Office of Inspector General found in March when they visited the Veterans Benefits Administration’s St. Petersburg Regional Office, which has more than 21,000 pending benefits claims that have been waiting for processing so long they are considered backlogged.

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 released Thursday. “During our interviews, (regional office) employees stated that lost and misfiled records in the file room were a major issue.”

The St. Petersburg VA Regional Office is the nation’s busiest claims processing center and covers all of Florida. The inspection was 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. The interim report acknowledges that two of its three concerns were since addressed and have been closed out. In addition, regional office officials say the overall number of claims older than 125 days, which are considered backlogged, have dropped 41 percent since March, 2013.

But when investigators arrived in St. Petersburg, there were problems.

In an effort to figure out just how bad the situation 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 latest VA Inspector General report citing lost and misfiled records at the Veterans Benefits Administration’s St. Petersburg Regional Office is both unacceptable and of grave concern,” said U.S. Rep. David Jolly, a member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee. “This troubling audit continues to underscore the complete failure of leadership within the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs...I have already joined my colleagues in issuing a subpoena to (VA) Secretary (Eric Shinseki) and others demanding information about this department’s failures. Ultimately I believe we need not simply procedural changes within the VA, but more personnel changes as well.”

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The regional office has 36,622 rating claims pending, of which 21,222 are considered backlog because they are pending more than 125 days, said regional office spokeswoman Kerrie Witty.

“Since March 2013, the St. Petersburg Regional Office has reduced our rating inventory 43 percent, from 52,241 claims pending,” she said in an email statement to The Tribune. “Our backlog has been reduced 41 percent, from 35,924 claims pending over 125 days. We currently have 20,369 appeals pending but do not measure backlog of appeals.”

The VA is transitioning to a paperless claims processing system, said Witty, “which will eliminate all paper claims folders and improve the efficiency of claims processing and service to veterans. Today more than 87 percent of VBA’s inventory is electronic.”

But the problems found by OIG inspectors in March 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, which were closed out by the VA OIG.

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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