The Office of Inspector General (OIG) for the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) issued an interim report on Monday of its review of alleged claims that the Los Angeles VA Regional Office (VARO) was shredding claims-related evidence.
After receiving anonymous allegations in January 2015 that staff at the Los Angeles VARO was shredding mail related to veterans’ disability compensation claims and that supervisors were instructing staff to shred those documents, the OIG conducted an unannounced inspection of the Los Angeles VARO in February 2015 to assess the merits of those allegations.
During that inspection, the OIG was able to substantiate the Los Angeles VARO staff was not following Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) January 2011 policy on management of veterans’ and other government records.
While the OIG was unable to quantify or identify claims-related documents that the VARO may have shredded prior to its review, they found nine claims-related documents that staff incorrectly placed in personal shred bids for non-claims related documents. Eight of those nine documents had the potential to affect veterans’ benefits.
Had policy been followed, those nine claims-related documents would not have been placed in personal shred bins designed for non-claims related documents.
Because the OIG reported inappropriate shredding of veterans’ claims in November 2008, the VBA created a permanent position of a Records Management Officer (RMO) to oversee and ensure appropriate management and safeguarding of veterans’ records. The RMO serves as the VARO’s final control to prevent shredding of claims-related documents. However, the OIG learned the Los Angeles VARO had no RMO from August 2014 until the February 2015 inspection. The RMO was promoted to another position in august 2014 and the Assistant Director determined the position of RMO was no longer necessary.
According to the OIG, Support Services Division (SSD) staff, which took over the duties of the RMO, lacked training with regard to maintaining, reviewing, protecting and appropriately destroying veterans’ and other government records. The Assistant Director assumed the RMO provided SSD staff with proper training but never verified it had occurred.
SSD staff told the OIG they only performed a “cursory review” of the documents as they dumped them in shred bins for contractor shredding. When asked to define what they meant by “cursory review,” SSD staff told the OIG they observed the documents as they dumped them into the bin designated for contractor shredding. The OIG concluded SSD staff was not properly trained and their “cursory reviews” were inadequate to identify and separate any claims-related documents from other documents.
Additionally, they were not familiar with claims-processing activities and lacked the knowledge required to identify claims or claims-related documents. There were no controls in place from preventing VARO staff from incorrectly placing claims-related documents in the wrong shred container.
The VARO also failed to provide any documentation of shredding logs for the past two years and staff only kept certificates of each shredding event carried out by the shredding contractor.
Since staff at the Los Angeles VARO did not consistently follow VBA’s controls, the OIG said it was likely staff would have inappropriately destroyed the nine claims-related documents it found, the shredding of which would have prevented the documents from becoming part of the veterans’ permanent record and could potentially affect their benefits.
Because the OIG had no way to determine if the Los Angeles VARO was an isolated problem or a systemic issue, the OIG initiated surprise inspections at the following VAROs: Atlanta; Baltimore; Chicago; Houston; New Orleans; Oakland, Calif.; Philadelphia; Reno, Nev.; San Juan, Puerto Rico; and St. Petersburg, Fla.
Once those 10 inspections are completed, the OIG will publish a final report and offer additional recommendations for improvements.
In the interim, the OIG recommended the Los Angeles VARO Director implement a plan and assess the effectiveness of training to ensure staff complies with VBA’s policies regarding the processing, handling and protection of claims-related and other government documents and that the director take proper action on the eight cases that had the potential to affect veterans’ benefits.