Veterans Affairs Backlog Files Stacked So High, They Posed Safety Risk to Staff

BY P.J. Tobia  April 2, 2013 at 12:03 PM EDT

Stacks of Veterans Affairs claim folders overtake a regional office in Winston-Salem, N.C. These photos were included in a 2012 report from the Veterans Affairs Office of Inspector General.

While researching our story on the Veterans Affairs benefits backlog, we saw this Veterans Affairs Administration Inspector General’s report that points out that at one VA center, a regional office in Winston-Salem, N.C., had so much paper that it “created an unsafe workspace for (VA) employees and appeared to have the potential to compromise the integrity of the building.”

The IG report, from August, 2012, found that at this one office alone, “37,000 claims folders were stored on top of file cabinets.” The report says that this “creates an unsafe environment for the employees, overexposes many claims folders to risk of fire/water damage, inadvertent loss and possible misplacement, as well as impedes (Veterans Affairs Regional Office) productivity by reducing access to many folders in a timely manner.”

According to the report, the sheer weight of the combined folders actually exceeded the load-bearing capacity of the building itself.

As claims continue to pour in, almost one million veterans are currently waiting for their benefit claims to be processed, according to an investigation conducted by the Center for Investigative Reporting. The CIR’s report also showed that the average wait time for a disability claim to be resolved is 279 days. First time claims take longer, averaging 318 days, and the wait time has grown 2,000 percent in the past four years.

The managers at the Winston-Salem office told the inspectors that they asked the VA’s regional headquarters for extra space, but “never received a formal written response to that request.”

This might be evidence of the fact that since 2009, the VA has processed a record number of claims, more than four million since 2009, according to a VA spokesman in Washington.

In a conversation on April 1, the office’s director C.J. Rawls told PBS NewsHour that the file problem has been solved with a new storage system. “I’m happy to tell you that we’ve moved those files.” A local news program has pictures of the newly file-free facility, which you can see here.

The inspectors took photos of the file overload, which they included in their 2012 report, and can be seen here:

*From the IG’s report: “We noticed floors bowing under the excess weight to the extent that the tops of file cabinets were noticeably unlevel throughout the storage area.”*

“Narrow aisles due to file cabinet placement may also impede employees from exiting file storage areas in case of emergency or crisis situations.”

“Sloping floors cause cabinets to shift due to the increased weight over time.”

After the inspection, Rawls wrote a staff memo. Among its directives: “Do not put overflow files on top of the cabinets.”

Rawls said that they put some of the files in temporary storage, while they built a “high-density file cabinet system.”

She explained that about 60,000 records that hadn’t been referenced in the last year were moved permanently to a storage facility offsite. “But we can get them back in three to five days if anybody files a supplemental claim” and needs them, she said.

Rawls said the changes were in place and fully operational as of March.


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