Also published at my web magazine: The Public Record.
The economic meltdown that has dominated media coverage over the past several months has overshadowed a crisis at the Department of Veterans Affairs, an agency in dire need of new leadership, veterans groups and Democratic lawmakers say.
VA is now treating more than 350,000 Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans and with the war in Iraq guaranteed to continue for at least another three years, and with the possibility of more troops being sent to fight in Afghanistan, tens of thousands of those veterans will likely seek medical care and benefits from the VA for combat related injuries.
But the VA is still unprepared to meet these challenges.
In recent months, as benefits claims have piled up at the VA, some of the agency's 250,000 employees have apparently become so overwhelmed with their work load that they were prepared to shred hundreds of benefits claims in order to avoid processing the forms, thereby denying veterans the benefits they have come to depend upon to survive.
Last month, internal watchdogs discovered 500 benefits claims in shredding bins at the 41 of the 57 regional VA offices around the country.
The incident resulted in hastily arranged roundtable discussion last week led by House Veterans Affairs Chairman Bob Filner who excoriated the VA for creating a “culture of dishonesty” that he said has become so pervasive over the years that it has completely shattered the confidence of war veterans who feel they can no longer depend on the agency for help when they return from combat.
"First, I am not convinced that only 500 documents were saved from the shredding bin. This is merely a snapshot in time. The VA was unable to convince me that more documents have not been shredded in the past and I honestly do not know how many records have been destroyed and how many files lost over the past decades.”
Two days before the Nov. 19 meeting, Secretary of Veterans Affairs Dr. James B. Peake responded to the controversy stating that he was “deeply concerned that improper actions by a few VA employees could have caused any veterans to receive less than their full entitlement to benefits earned by their service to our nation.”
“In rectifying this unacceptable lapse, VA will be guided by two principles – full accountability for VA staff and ensuring veterans receive the benefit of the doubt if receipt of a document by VA is in question,” Peake said.
The VA extended the deadline to Nov. 19, 2009 for veterans to re-submit benefits claims filed between April 14, 2007 and Oct. 14, 2008 may have ended up in one of the 47 shredding bins. Additionally, the agency said shredding equipment at regional offices is now under the control of the facility records management officer. The VA said all bins that contain documents for shredding are subject to review and two people and the facility records management officer must approve benefits claims that are shredded.
Peake said the VA’s inspector general is continuing to investigate cases “where inappropriate shredding may be traceable to a specific employee” and the agency will initiate “legal and disciplinary action...to hold accountable any employee who has acted improperly.”
Admiral Patrick Dunne, the Under Secretary for Benefits for the VA, who attended last week’s roundtable discussion with Filner, said benefits claims slated for the shredder underscores the VA’s need to address poor document handling procedures. It doesn’t mean the VA trying to prevent veterans from obtaining benefits.
Dunne suggested the VA move to an electronic filing system to safeguard benefits claims.
But Filner said he doesn’t trust the VA and does not believe, under Peake, that the agency can get its act together.