A bipartisan group of lawmakers is urging federal record stewards to clear a massive backlog of veterans’ records requests that is preventing some veterans and their families from obtaining services.
In March 2020, the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) in St. Louis, Missouri, began limiting its in-person operations due to the coronavirus pandemic, fulfilling only emergency requests such as burials and life-threatening medical treatments.
Now, more than a year later, the NPRC has a backlog of about 499,000 requests and only recently brought 25% of its staff back on-site, according to the agency.
Ohio Republican Rep. Warren Davidson said those numbers are unacceptable.
“To me, it’s urgent enough that if you needed to deploy the National Guard to lend them a hand, then deploy the National Guard,” Davidson told Coffee or Die Magazine. “But we need to clear the backlog in very short order […] instead of continuing to watch it grow.”
Veterans need records stored at the NPRC in order to access education benefits, health care services such as early access to COVID-19 vaccines, VA loans, burial benefits, life insurance, and more.
“We know we are failing. We know the situation is untenable, and we are eager to fix it,” a spokesperson for the NPRC told Coffee or Die Magazine in an email. According to the center, the volume of emergency requests has doubled during the pandemic. Staff has managed to process most requests from the VA for records needed to adjudicate claims in about three days, but many other requests are on the back burner.
The center is working two shifts each weekday and operating on Saturdays and Sundays to improve response times on emergency requests, according to the NPRC. The agency is also hiring more than 100 new employees and increasing the number of contract laborers, after Congress allocated $15 million to try to help the problem.
However, the center estimates it will take 18 to 24 months of working at full capacity to clear the entire backlog.
“Our veterans shouldn’t have to wait,” Davidson said.
Earlier this month, more than 180 representatives from both parties signed a letter from Davidson, Deborah Ross, D-N.C., and Mike Bost, R-Ill., asking the administration of President Joe Biden to take “every available action to reopen” the center. The letter includes several other requests, including that the VA accept alternate materials to verify a veteran’s service record for the purpose of granting burial services.
“[The NPRC needs] more people,” Davidson said. “This is a 6-million-square-foot warehouse, four stories high with records. […] If you don’t get at 100%, you’re going to keep losing ground.”
The plan to eliminate the backlog largely hinges on technological advancement. The VA has been granted funding to digitize all records from World War II to the present, but there are administrative and legal hurdles to jump first, according to the NPRC.
In the meantime, staff are urging people to submit requests using its online tool, eVetRecs, which also allows users to go back later and check the status.