Frequent mistakes by veterans benefits staffers are adding months of waiting time in some routine record requests made by elderly veterans, a department watchdog warned this week.

Officials from the Veterans Affairs Inspector General’s office said improvements in training and protocols could cut down those wait times by several months, but only if VA leaders put more emphasis on fixing the problem.

At issue are requests for military records from the National Personnel Records Center that were damaged in a massive fire in July 1973. The disaster partially or completely burned about 18 million official Defense Department personnel files, and has for decades led to a host of problems obtaining veterans benefits for those individuals.

On average, veterans filing for disability benefits wait 146 days for their cases to be completed, according to VA data. But for veterans whose records were damaged in the NPRC fire, that delay jumps to about 450 days because of the complexity of reconstructing records and determining individuals’ eligibility.

But the new inspector general report found that as many as 80% of those damaged records requests are being handled improperly by department staffers. Correcting some of those mistakes — things such as checking for backup copies of the files and making timely follow-up requests — could cut wait times by up to 73 days.

“Veterans service representatives generally informed veterans of the actions necessary to complete a record request for fire-damaged or destroyed records,” the report stated. “However, they did not always complete required follow-up procedures, such as calling the veteran.

“VBA staff are not performing the steps in the order prescribed by the manual.”

Part of the problem is that the damaged records requests only represent a small fraction of the total claims inventory VA staff handle annually. Total disability claim filings approached two million cases last year, while claims involving fire-damaged records total only a few thousand each year.

Still, the added wait is potentially more harmful to those veterans than others. The inspector general’s report said the average age for veterans requesting fire-damaged records is 87.

VA officials said they are working on solutions. They hope to implement new training and procedures early next year, according to a statement from Under Secretary of Benefits Joshua Jacobs to the inspector general’s office.

The inspector general’s report said those changes need to happen as soon as possible to “ensure these veterans receive compassionate service in a timely manner.”

The full report is available on the inspector general’s website.

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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