What’s your experience with veterans’ disability claims?

Jeff Severns Guntzel
Senior reporter
Public Insight Network

Members of the U.S. military returning home from combat with illnesses or disabilities are joining a growing line of veterans waiting for action from the Department of Veterans Affairs. VA offices around the country are overwhelmed by the number of incoming benefit claims and are struggling to improve accuracy and efficiency in a process that still relies almost completely on sheets of paper and file folders.

We are working with the Center for Investigative Reporting to explain what’s causing the delays and to highlight their effects on veterans — many of whom have waited six months or more for the VA to rule on their claims.

>> Help us cover this story: What’s your experience with veteran disability claims?

As part of our effort to understand the delays and the growing backlog of claims for disability and other veterans’ benefits, we’re reviewing recent internal inspections of VA regional offices (called VAROs by the department). Time and again inspectors detailed improper processing of important paperwork. One report published in 2010 provided a particularly dramatic illustration of the paperwork problem with this image from a VA storage area in Roanoke, Va.:

Some of the approximately 10,800 veterans' file folders improperly stored on top of file cabinets at the department's regional office in Roanoke, Va., documented during a 2009 audit. A structural engineer warned the weight of the files stored here could "present a threat to the safety of the facility and the occupants." (Photo from Department of Veterans Affairs)

Some of the approximately 10,800 veterans’ claims folders improperly stored on top of file cabinets at the department’s regional office in Roanoke, Va., documented during a 2009 audit. A structural engineer warned the weight of the files stored here could “present a threat to the safety of the facility and the occupants.” (Photo from Department of Veterans Affairs)

From the VA inspection report [PDF] of the Roanoke regional office:

During our inspection, we identified three floors (10th, 11th, and 12th) within the building designated as file rooms for storage of veterans’ claims folders. We observed approximately 10,800 claims folders stored on top of filing cabinets. VBA policy states that staff will not file records beyond the normal capacity of equipment nor place them in a location where a reasonable possibility of losing or discarding the records exists, such as when they are stored on filing equipment.

… On September 3, 2009, the General Services Administration received a report from a structural engineer stating that the floor load on the 10th, 11th, and 12th floors of the Poff Federal Building was 160 pounds per square foot, exceeding the recommended floor load of 80 pounds per square foot. The report stated the high floor load was a result of large blocks of filing cabinets distributed throughout the VA space and the placement of additional active files on top of the existing cabinets. These additional files are improperly stored on top of the filing cabinets because of insufficient storage space. The engineering report indicated excessive overloading has the potential to induce structural damage and possible failure to the integrity of the building that can present a threat to the safety of the facility and the occupants.

… the VARO Director lacked assurance that staff could account for all veterans’ claims folders within the VARO. Furthermore, the VARO has an increased risk associated with employee safety, safeguarding veterans’ claims folders from water damage, and structural failure to the integrity of the building.

Three years later, national VA staff still point to paper piles in conversations about claims delays. From a Center for Investigative Reporting story:

“If you have ever walked into one of our regional offices, you would see stacks and stacks of paper,” Allison Hickey, the agency’s undersecretary for benefits, told reporters in a conference call on July 11 [2012].

>> Help us cover this story: What’s your experience with veteran disability claims?