Veterans hit by huge pandemic-related records backlog

Mark Satter
Cq-Roll Call

WASHINGTON — After Navy veteran Jack Ray Hoaglan died from the coronavirus in December, his family tried to arrange a military funeral for the 73-year-old. They needed paper records from the National Personnel Records Center to prove the Ohio native’s service aboard the USS Enterprise decades ago.

The phones at the St. Louis center, however, went unanswered.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the NPRC has sat empty, with employees working remotely. And records requests, most of which require someone to physically search for documents within the building, have been piling up.

Now, the backlog has grown to over 499,000 requests, according to a spokesperson for the National Archives, which oversees the NPRC. The National Archives estimates that it will take 18 to 24 months to clear the backlog once the center is staffed at full capacity.

The records are key to unlocking many kinds of veteran benefits, including health care, burial benefits, home loans and COVID-19 vaccinations.

“Overall the situation at the center is pretty disappointing. Their plan to take 18 to 24 months to clear the backlog is unacceptable and means we’re not keeping the promises we made to our veterans,” Rep. Warren Davidson, R-Ohio, who visited the records center this month, said in an interview.

“This backlog is preventing veterans from gaining access to essential services, including education benefits, health care services, and COVID-19 vaccinations. Our veterans and their families deserve better. I urge the administration to use every available resource at its disposal to ensure all veterans have access to the services they have earned,” said Rep. Deborah K. Ross, D-N.C., in an email.

Seeking intervention: In an April 5 letter sent to President Joe Biden, Davidson, Ross, and House Veterans’ Affairs ranking member Mike Bost, R-Ill., along with 182 other lawmakers, requested a high-level intervention by the administration to address the backlog.

Lawmakers took issue with the lack of progress from the NPRC in addressing its backlog despite having received $15 million in emergency appropriations from Congress in December 2020.

“The NPRC received $15 million to reduce the records request backlog, deploy resources for staff working remotely, and hire temporary employees … yet the backlog has only grown. Additionally, the NPRC is not operating its call center. Attempts to call the emergency contact number have resulted in a busy signal, and the NPRC’s customer service line is simply unstaffed,” the lawmakers wrote.

Moreover, according to Davidson, some NPRC staff are only now receiving government-issued laptops that enable remote work — 13 months after most of the country shut down and people began working from home.

A spokesperson for the National Archives confirmed that the “deployment” of laptops began in January and will continue “through the spring.”

When asked what happened to the $15 million sent to the records center by Congress, the spokesperson said that the funds were being used to modernize the center’s operations. That includes digitizing documents and setting up a new call center that can be staffed remotely.

More needed: But some say that a call center is not enough, and the digitization of records is happening far too slowly to matter in the short term.

“The opening of a new call center provides a glimmer of hope, but we need documents,” said Mike Farmer, the executive director of the Butler County Veterans Service Commission, an Ohio organization that helps veterans access their benefits.

“It’s such a disservice to sit across from a veteran or family member and have these conversations knowing we did everything — there are no do-overs for funerals. We just cannot get it done and it’s inexcusable,” Farmer said.

Part of the issue, according to the National Archives, is ensuring a safe work environment amid the pandemic. To that end, NPRC staff have been designated as essential critical infrastructure workers to expedite vaccine distribution.

Though, according to VA Secretary Denis McDonough, vaccines have been available to records center employees for some time now.

“We’ve offered now going back five or six weeks to set aside some of the VA’s allotted vaccines to give to the NPRC — we heard this week that some of our vaccines are now being used,” McDonough said during a House Appropriations Committee hearing last week.

“This has been an issue since I arrived and it’s super frustrating,” McDonough said.