The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) plays a vital role in making sure Veterans’ claims for benefits are processed in a timely manner. VA’s plan to digitize federal records will improve service to Veterans and their families at both VA and NARA.
The pandemic’s impact on the record request backlog
The COVID-19 pandemic created a backlog of record requests at NARA and its record center in St. Louis, Missouri, the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC), which houses over two million square feet of paper military records. Mandated telework during the pandemic caused a backlog of NPRC record requests. According to William Bosanko, Chief Operating Officer at NARA, in his letter to the Department of Defense dated May 10, 2021, the records requests backlog has reached over half a million requests. VBA requests for records for disability claims processing are not included in this number. However, stalls in record retrievals have impacted access to some VA, state and local benefits that require these records.
Pandemic Impact: VBA vs. NPRC
VBA’s collaboration with NPRC during the pandemic reduced the backlog of claims-specific records requests from 80,000 to approximately 8,000, and today, NPRC is answering VBA requests within three to five days to support claims processing. Once VA digitizes a federal record, that record is uploaded to the Veteran’s file in the VBMS. The VBA fiscal year 2020 Annual Benefits Report shows VBA was able to continue to complete many claims throughout the pandemic.
NPRC receives requests from many other agencies and from Veterans, in addition to requests from VBA. Unfortunately, NPRC’s transition to a telework environment resulted in record requests that couldn’t be processed, and the NPRC records inventory grew rapidly. Congress addressed its concerns about the NPRC to the Archivist of the United States, David Ferriero, in a May 6 letter regarding the growing inventory. NPRC quarterly data shows how long some records take to get digitized.
VA has aggressive plans to further improve claims processing timeliness by digitizing records supporting benefits determinations before a Veteran or survivor even files a claim for benefits. VA is using $150 million of its ARP grants to expand the scope of Federal scanning to reduce claims processing delays and reduce the current claims backlog by half. In addition, VA will provide digital copies of all scanned records to NARA to help expedite pending and future requests for any Veteran records.
VA and NARA have collaborated to build an on-site scanning capability for immediate scanning of records responsive to pending claims, with a plan to scan several million records by September 2022.
Federal Records: Past, Present and Future
Personnel records digitization began in 1994. Most military medical records (or service treatment records) have been digitized since 2014, and a Veteran discharged today has their personnel and medical records digitized. The records are available in VBA’s VBMS electronic folder (eFolder) before a claim has ever been filed. Records are available on Day 1 by claims processors and medical examiners to quickly process Veterans’ claims. Because of VBA’s investments in the digital records that are accessible through the Veterans Benefits Management System (VBMS), VBA transitioned seamlessly to a maximum telework environment during the pandemic.
NPRC stores paper records for all Veterans who exited service before records digitization became available. Records from Veterans discharged from approximately 1965 to 1994 are the target for VA records digitization efforts because they represent the most likely new applicants for benefits.
When VBA requests a Veteran’s records for a pending claim, NPRC physically pulls the records and a VA contractor scans the paper files. During the pandemic, fewer NPRC employees were available to pull records from their stacks, and VA employees assisted NARA by pulling physical records needed for claims processing. Today, NPRC is staffed at 20% of its workforce, and VA employees continue to perform this work to ensure that VBA can meet its obligation to Veterans who file claims for benefits.
With the pandemic protocols now ebbing and more people coming back to work at the NPRC, its staff and contractors will leverage VA scanned records, in addition to the paper records, to respond to requests in its pending inventory of 500,000 requests. VA and NARA are working collaboratively to ensure that VA records scanning and tools are available to NPRC to facilitate VA and non-VA responses to requests for records. VA’s digitization strategy for proactive records scanning will pay tremendous dividends for the long-term future of serving Veterans and their families.