Veterans wait months longer than necessary to have their veterans disability benefits processed because of delays in how military officials handle service medical records, according to an audit released Thursday by the Defense Department Inspector General.
Investigators found that 77 percent of Army medical records scheduled to be delivered to VA offices in 2013 took longer than the 45 days mandated under DoD rules. Of those that were delivered, 28 percent were incomplete, causing further problems.
“During a site visit to an Army military treatment facility in December 2013, we found several boxes of [medical records] for service members who separated from the military as far back as July 2011,” the report states. “DoD’s failure to consistently make timely and complete [records] available to VA likely contributed to delays in processing veterans’ benefit claims.”
Army records thus far this year have shown similar poor results, with 87 percent overdue, the report states.
The other services received low marks from investigators as well. For Air Force records in 2013, 35 percent were late and 11 percent were incomplete. The report says Navy officials failed to keep enough records last year to provide a full look at their efficiency and accuracy, and 78 percent of records transferred so far this year have been late. The Navy Department also handles Marine Corps records.
The revelations come as Veterans Affairs Department officials continue efforts to reduce their disability claims processing backlog. About 270,000 cases have been pending with VA processors for more than 125 days, down more than 50 percent in the last year but still a frustratingly large burden for the department and outside critics.
In almost 49,000 Army and Air Forces cases, defense officials took more than 120 days to transfer medical records to VA offices, according to the report. That alone could have added thousands of new veterans’ disability claims to the backlog.
The IG blamed a host of problems for the delays: unclear guidance from military officials, inefficient procedures for transferring the files, and simple mistakes from service health officials.
Investigators found numerous instances of Army Reserve and Army National Guard record keepers scanning medical files into the service digital systems even though the information was already computerized elsewhere. Navy officials routinely mailed hard copies of medical records to three different facilities before they could be scanned.
In response to the report, officials from the Pentagon’s office of the undersecretary for personnel and readiness said new instructions to address the delays will be released in mid-August, and promised more thorough reviews of the process to prevent future problems.
Military officials also said that improvement of electronic medical record sharing between DoD and VA will help avoid future delays.
But coordinating digital records systems between the departments has been a controversial task for years, with lawmakers questioning DoD’s decisions to build a new digital medical records system instead of using the VA’s existing framework.