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June 17 2016

VA Shred-Fest Could Endanger Veterans’ Benefits

Patrice L. Onwuka

It must have been spring cleaning for many Veterans Affairs (VA) regional offices, otherwise why else would they throw out documents related to disability claims for veterans? Whether human error or something more intentional,  we have more cases of VA ineptitude at the cost of veterans.

When the VA Inspector General (IG) investigated 10 regional VA offices last year, they sifted through reams of documents and discovered that among the 438,000 files sent to the departmental shred bins, some 130 of them were not appropriate to shred because they affected or could have impacted a veteran’s claim. While that’s not even a tenth of a percent of the files, the impact is not negligible.

Federal News Radio reports:

“VBA might not consider the number of documents we found as a systemic issue,” Brent Arronte, deputy assistant inspector general for audits and evaluations for the VA OIG, told the House Veterans Affairs Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs Subcommittee at a June 15 hearing. “However, we consider this to be a systemic issue in the sense that policies were not followed across the nation at the offices we looked at.”

For Beth McCoy, deputy undersecretary for field operations at the Veterans Benefits Administration, that number of documents that went to departmental shred bins is small and can be explained simply as a human mistake…

That sounds like something a VA official might say. Even if these were mistakes, do agency leaders care to ensure it won’t happen again? Likely not.

This is not the first time the VA has been reprimanded by an inspector general for nearly shredding claims-related documents. Seven years ago, agency leaders admitted that an 450 claims-related documents were inadvertently set aside for disposal.

The answer today -as it was back then- is that the agency will allegedly update their records management guidelines for employees. That worked so well in 2009, didn’t it:

“Back in 2009, the VA’s answer was similar to your answer now, more training, more training,” Subcommittee Chairman Ralph Abraham (R-La.) said to McCoy. “And now in 2016, the VA solution is to provide more training, better training. How can we as a committee be assured that this training … would actually result in better management of these records?”

Training will help, McCoy said, but the most helpful solution has been the department’s new electronic claims processing system, which now handles nearly 100 percent of disability compensation claims. The new Veterans Benefits Management System helped the VA make significant strides in tackling the backlog of unprocessed claims, which fell from 611,000 cases in March 2013 to a little more than 75,000 by the end of 2015, the department said Tuesday.

In Philadelphia, where one of the benefits claims centers was investigated, policymakers aren’t buying the VA’s excuses or empty promises to do better next time:

Several representatives expressed doubt that more training is the answer. They noted that the VA previously had said several years ago that training would prevent inappropriate shredding.

Among them was Rep. Ryan Costello, a Republican representing several Philadelphia suburbs and parts of Berks and Montgomery counties.

“I get concerned when we see information like this and the response from the VA is, well .we’re looking at revising our rules and regulations, our procedures, our requirements, when in fact there is nothing that prevents those working on these files from just doing their job properly in the first instance. And if you’re not going to properly do your job, then it really doesn’t matter what rules, regulations or requirements are further added,” Costello said at the hearing.

The VA has an atrocious history of records management. As we know, they have been in hot water for manipulating the wait times that veterans face to be seen by medical professionals to appear shorter than they are. While the VA claims that 97 percent of veterans received an appointment at a VA medical center within 30 days, the Government Accountability Office found wait times much greater than that (some 21 to 72 days.)

We have no reason to believe that anything will change or get better at the VA. We constantly report on the same problems plaguing the same agency. It’s a reminder that big government changes very little for the better. Ousting leaders is a band-aid solution when the cancer of a toxic culture is widespread across the agency’s body.

IIndependent Women's Forum is an educational 501(c)(3) dedicated to developing and advancing policies that aren’t just well intended, but actually enhance people’s freedom, choices, and opportunities. IWF is the sister organization of the Independent Women’s Voice.​
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