With backlog at 408K records, veterans concerned as records availability slows during pandemic

A Dayton-area congressman plans to visit the head of the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis Monday to express concern about what he says has been the glacial pace at which crucial veterans’ records have been made available during the pandemic.

It’s more than paperwork. Personnel and service records from federal government archives make it possible to build a complete service history — something needed for veterans and families to establish accurate service records, obtain Veterans Affairs (VA) medical care, receive service awards or even burials with military honors, said U.S. Rep. Warren Davidson (R-OH).

There have been sporadic attempts to reopen the center, but today the backlog is significant — at 408,000 requests for records, Davidson said. (That number comes from the Congressional Research Service, Davidson’s office said.)

“That’s over 1,000 cases on average per congressional district,” said Davidson, who intends to travel Monday to St. Louis to meet with Scott Levins, director of the National Personnel Records Center there. “That’s unacceptable.”

The center is losing ground in efforts to respond to requests, Davidson said in an interview. Due to the pandemic and attendant demands for distancing, the center fell to 25% capacity on one shift for much of the year.

When Congress became aware of the issue last fall, members urged center personnel to address the issue. In December, Congress appropriated about $15 million to assist, Davidson said.

According to the 8th District Republican, the center pledged to shift to 25% capacity on a second shift — which was a step in the right direction, but in Davidson’s view, didn’t truly solve the problem.

“You don’t have to be a math major to see that you can’t get a 100% result with a 50% staffing level, unless maybe you were overstaffed by 200% or something,” Davidson said. “So that’s the concern.”

Davidson said his main message to Levins will be simple. “You’ve had three months and $15 million. What’s the plan?”

A message was sent to Levins seeking comment.

It appears the Department of Veterans Affairs is aware of the issue.

On Thursday, four days before Davidson’s scheduled visit with Levins, the VA announced that it had reached an agreement with the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) to provide COVID-19 vaccines to NARA staff supporting VA claims processing.

VA will provide medical staff and enrollment specialists to administer the vaccine.

NARA employees will be scheduled appointments to get vaccines at an off-campus site, the VA said. The National Personnel Records Center is part of NARA.

“The staff at NARA play a vital role in making sure veteran claims for compensation for service-related conditions are processed in a timely manner,” Acting Under Secretary for Benefits Thomas Murphy said in a statement. “By assisting their vaccination efforts, we can make significant progress in processing the backlog in claims, which has increased since March 2020 due to the pandemic.”

Davidson has sent a letter to the Biden administration about his concerns with Rep. Deborah Ross, a North Carolina Democrat.

The letter asks the Biden administration to designate center employees as essential workers so they can have access to vaccines and testing. The letter also asks for a reevaluation of safety measures and to consider increasing staffing or overtime to address the backlog.

So far, more than 120 members of Congress — from both parties — have signed on, according to Davidson’s office.

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