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Department of Veterans Affairs regional offices have been ordered to immediately stop shredding documents after an investigation found some benefits claims and supporting documents among piles of papers waiting to be destroyed.
Claims often include personal records supplied by veterans that are not duplicated in government files and might be difficult to replace, such as certificates for births, deaths and marriage.
In a statement, VA Secretary James Peake said only a handful of documents were found among piles of documents set aside to be shredded. But he is not pleased.
"I insist on the highest possible standards for processing and safeguarding information in VA's custody," Peake said. "It is unacceptable that documents important to a veteran's claim for benefits should be misplaced or destroyed."
Peake said three of VA's 57 regional offices were involved, without naming them. Veterans of Foreign Wars said they were told four regional offices — in Detroit, St. Louis, St. Petersburg, Fla., and Waco, Texas — were identified as having documents in shredding bins that should not have been there.
VFW National Commander Glen Gardner said the problem could be significant.
"The VA inspector general conducted a routine investigation of Detroit's mailroom and discovered five documents in the shredder bin, then three pieces are found in St. Louis, two in Waco, and some more in St. Petersburg," he said. "The question that begs to be asked and answered is how many veterans had their disability and compensation claims disappear down a paper shredder?"
Peake said VA's inspector general continues to investigate and that anyone who violated policies on protecting documents will be held accountable.
Among the records found waiting to be shredded were applications for disability compensation, education benefits, home loans and pensions for low-income veterans, officials said.
The halt in shredding was ordered by Patrick Dunne, the retired Navy rear admiral sworn in just weeks ago as VA's new undersecretary for benefits.
Dunne's order aims to prevent any documents from being destroyed until officials can determine if this is a widespread problem.
VA officials said a new policy will require regional office directors to certify, in writing, that none of the documents being destroyed are original copies of key documents or records.
Current VA policies require that original copies of documents supplied by veterans or their families — including discharge papers and marriage and death certificates — be returned when they are no longer needed, but they allow duplicates to be destroyed, a practice intended to help protect privacy.
VA officials discussed the problem in a conference call with veterans' service organizations on Thursday, saying that the shredding ban is so sweeping that it includes the removal of portable shredders from beside the desks of VA workers.
Garner, who was in on that conference call, said VA needs to establish internal controls. "We have to believe that the VA will right this wrong," he said in a statement.
He suggested that some claims may have been set aside for shredding by employees who did not want to complete them or were trying to hide a backlog.
"Secretary Peake must hold everyone involved personally accountable for this disgraceful management failure," he said. "Someone who intentionally destroys paperwork, or supervisors who allow employees to interpret their own rules, are … doing serious damage to a great public image that took the VA years to build. Our veterans and our nation deserve much better."
The Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee chairman, Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, said the shredding ban makes sense as a temporary measure, "but this is not a long-term solution."
"VA needs an enforced and understood policy which preserves documents relevant to pending claims, without leaving veterans' personal information open to identity theft," Akaka said.
He said he understands VA does not have room to store everything. "Some documents must be properly disposed of due to space constraints and privacy issues," he said.
Still, he said, veterans "must be able to trust VA to safely keep their records. If they cannot, VA will not be able to do its job, and veterans will not get the benefits they have earned through their service."