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OIG Report Confirms VA Improperly Shredded Claims-Related Documents

Last year, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Office of Inspector General (“OIG”) conducted spot checks (i.e., an audit) at 10 veterans benefits offices around the country to make sure that VA staff members were following Veterans Benefits Administration’s (“VBA”) policies on the management of veterans’ and other governmental paper records.

The OIG came to a disturbing conclusion, finally publicly released ten months after the audit: the VA has been systemically shredding documents related to veterans’ claims – some potentially affecting their benefits. This conclusion is documented in an April report (the “Report”).

The VA Office of Inspector General conducted the surprise audit at 10 regional offices on July 20, 2015, after an investigation into inappropriate shredding in Los Angeles found that staff there was destroying veterans’ mail related to claims.

Investigators arrived unannounced at regional offices and sifted through 438,000 documents awaiting destruction as of 11 a.m. Of 155 claims-related documents, 69 were found to have been incorrectly placed in shred bins at six of the regional offices: Atlanta, Chicago, Houston, New Orleans, Philadelphia and Reno, Nev. There were none at Baltimore, Oakland, San Juan and St. Petersburg, Fla.

Investigators determined that two of the 69 documents affected benefits directly, nine had the potential to affect benefits and the rest would not affect benefits but were required to be in the claims folders before destruction and were not there.

It was enough, the report said, to conclude that not only were the problems systemic, the impact could be serious.

“The potential effect should not be minimized,” the Report concluded. “Considering that there are 56 [VA regional offices], and if weekly shredding is conducted, it is highly likely that claims-related documents at other VAROs are being improperly scheduled for destruction that could result in loss of claims and evidence, incorrect decisions and delays in claims processing.”

In the Report, the OIG determined that the errors in destroying claims documents in general stemmed from a lack of understanding of the Veteran’s Benefits Administration policy on managing paper records. The OIG recommended that the Acting Under Secretary for Benefits Danny Pummill revise the policy to ensure claims documents are clearly identified, and develop/implement detailed and standardized procedures for records management staff to review documents. It also called for safeguards to ensure that the documents get the mandated levels of review, that employees comply with the policy, and that supervisors conduct periodic reviews of the claims-related documents slated for shredding.

In its response, the Veteran’s Benefits Administration concurred with the recommendations and agreed to revise the policy and also realign staff responsibilities to “ensure procedures are in place to track all shredding violations identified.”

But it denied that the findings indicated a systemic issue. “VBA knows that every veteran’s record is important and regrets these human errors,” the response said. “However we disagree that a fraction of a percentage error rate is indicative of a systemic issue.”

What do you think? Are these findings an anomaly, or do they reflect a systemic issue? (As a note, I’ve blogged on this before, so this isn’t a new issue). I do find it interesting that the VA denies this is a systematic issue, while its OIG waited nearly a year after the audit to publicize the findings. If it didn’t need to hide a systematic issue, why not be transparent?

Also, if you’re a veteran who has waited five years to have your claim decided, and then receive a denial that fails to account for an important medical decision that would have granted your claim, does that distinction matter to you?

Access the OIG’s Report here. Also, if you found this article informative, sign up for Sarah Schauerte’s legal blog on veteran’s issues at: http://www.legalmeetspractical.com.

 

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