Veterans records backlog mounts

Requests for veterans records pour in to the National Personnel Records Center at a rate of 6,000 a day. But the records center, a massive warehouse in St. Louis, is ill-equipped to handle the demand.

In an age when agencies such as the Internal Revenue Service and the Social Security Administration are able to share electronic records almost instantly, the National Personnel Records Center still operates much as it did when it opened in 1955.

Records are stored in cardboard boxes stacked 10 rows high on miles of steel shelves. Record retrieval means finding the right file in the right box among tens of thousands of others.

On average, it takes workers at the records center 54 days to respond to written requests for records. But sometimes it takes years.

Veterans need service records to obtain health benefits, disability compensation, GI Bill education benefits, home loan guarantees, sometimes to get jobs and, ultimately, to get permission to be buried in a national cemetery.

Under pressure from Congress, the records center has been trying to speed up its records processing time, but an investigation by the General Accounting Office found that efforts to improve are only slowing the center down.

The National Archives and Records Administration, which operates the center, is planning improvements that include the capability to receive requests for records via computer and using computers to track records requests and draft correspondence.

For decades, though, the computerless records center relied on handwritten forms. Until February 2000, the center did not permit workers to have telephones on their desks, fearing that phones would reduce productivity.

But GAO found that the lack of telephones kept workers who needed more information from contacting the people who made the records requests. When confronted with missing information, records workers would simply mail unfulfilled requests back to senders, lengthening delays.

The records center plans to begin using computers to receive and track records requests and to draft responses to requesters. Ultimately, the center hopes to install a computer system able to tap into other agencies' databases. That, records center officials say, should speed responses to record requests.

Since 1999, the records center has been phasing in a new "work process" intended to shorten response times. According to the GAO, workers using the new system can complete about 15 records requests a day. Under the old system, they completed 31 requests a day.

The records center's primary effort to tackle slow response times has been to have its employees work overtime, GAO reported. Even so, during the first six months of this year, the center's backlog of unanswered requests for records grew from 145,000 to 214,000, GAO reported. And the backlog is expected to pass 240,000 before the end of the year.

NARA has taken steps to respond more quickly to certain requests. Requests for records needed for emergency medical care and burials can be answered in 24 hours, said Lewis Bellardo, deputy archivist of the United States.

Requests involving homeless veterans and mortgages may be answered within a matter of days, he said. And records needed for loans, jobs, health benefits are answered in 32 days or less.

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