Kristina Derro, Esq.
The Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) recently began to scan and digitally store the multitude of documents received from veterans during the claims process in order to increase efficiency and reduce paper waste. On its face, this idea of a paperless claims process seems to be one of those rare instances in which the Veterans Administration is acting in the interests of those it is intended to serve. What’s not to love about an environmentally conscious initiative that will grant applicants access to all documents during the claims process via the internet, thereby reducing the claims processing time?
Well, it seems as though this was an empty promise. Per usual, the VA carried out this digital transition consistent with its longstanding tradition of incompetence. At best, VA employees were ill-prepared and overwhelmed by the volume of work that was required to complete this. The more likely story is that the VA sought to push their workload and responsibilities onto a third party, inevitably delaying the claims process.
The idea of an efficient Veterans Administration is a paradox, and this paradox is best displayed in the recent investigative report conducted by the VA Office of Inspector General on the St. Petersburg Regional Office (RO). Initiated after receiving a tip from St. Petersburg RO employees, inspectors looked into the nearly 30-day increase in average wait time for claims processing.
From June 2014 to December 2015, the average wait time at the St. Petersburg RO jumped from 152 days to 179 days. What’s troubling is that VA officials announced an 88% decrease in backlogged claims during the same time period. Additionally, the St. Petersburg RO was well-underway in the digital transition that was supposed to result in a reduction in the claims processing wait time. So what went wrong?
In order to carry out this digital transition, the VA contracted out the scanning process to CACI International. VA employees were to compile the hardcopy documents received from veterans, place the organized file into boxes, and ship them to the CACI scanning center for digital conversion and storage. The program’s reliance on VA employees to effectively carry out this new responsibility seemed problematic from the start, not to mention the unnecessary addition of a third party transaction for the sake of efficiency.
As it turns out, you cannot teach an old dog new tricks. Investigators uncovered a backlog of nearly 1,600 boxes and 42,000 packages sent by mail. Contained within these boxes and packages were individual claims sitting unprocessed at the CACI scanning center. The mountain of unprocessed claims was a result of the St. Petersburg office’s “inefficient preparation and handling of veteran-provided documentation.”
The boxes received by the CACI were filled with loose papers with sensitive information for multiple veterans along with irrelevant documents such as blank pages. The result was a nearly tenfold increase of unprocessed veteran claims materials shipped from St. Petersburg to the CACI center.
Even those documents lucky enough to be processed were taking six times as long as they were supposed to. Far more problematic than the slower processing time was the post-scan storage of this sensitive information. Apparently, CACI thought it would be okay to toss them into the nearest utility closet: “We [VA Office of Inspector General] observed a large amount of hard copy sensitive veteran information haphazardly commingled with contractor company documentation, excess office furniture, and empty computer boxes that appeared to be trash.”
According to investigators, this was not an issue of CACI employment misconduct, but rather inadequate VA oversight. The VA seized the opportunity to lighten the workload and didn’t find it necessary to ensure safe and speedy processing of claims at the scanning center. The report says the unattended claims were “potentially vulnerable to loss, theft, and misuse to include identity theft or fraud.” Needless to say, many documents that veterans submitted to the VA never got scanned into the system or properly attached to the veteran’s file.
So once again, the VA shows how little value is placed on veterans disability claims. The real losers here are the unidentified number of veterans who suffered a longer claims process time, or worse, the loss of their claim altogether. This report affirms the importance of retaining competent representation when filing or appealing a benefits claim with the VA. Don’t rely on the good faith of the VA employees to carry out your claim.
We have a national practice representing veterans from across the country. This representation occurs at the United States Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, the Board of Veterans’ Appeals and regional offices. We have helped veterans collect over $10,000,000 in retro and future benefits. Over the years, Legal Help for Veterans has become a trusted name in the legal community for providing legal services to veterans.