A Marine Corporal receives the purple heart. (Photo: Lori Grinker / Contact Press Images)
Detroit - A government watchdog that oversees the Department of Veterans Affairs is investigating mishandling of claim documents at the VA office in Detroit, amid reports of active claim documents found in shredder bins and thousands of pieces of unprocessed mail.
An official in the department's Office of Inspector General confirmed Wednesday that the Detroit office and three other regional offices were visited recently as part of an audit of the department's handling of veteran benefits claims.
In Detroit, the audit discovered some problem documents, and an arm of the department, the Veterans Benefits Administration, is taking action, said the official, who would not elaborate and said the audit is continuing.
News of problems with the handling of claims at the Detroit VA office was first reported this week on the vawatchdog.org Web site.
Larry Scott, an Army veteran and former NBC-TV reporter who founded the Web site and wrote the article, said he received information about the investigation from confidential sources inside the department.
Scott reported that a mid-September inspection by officials from the Office of Inspector General found "hundreds of claims, documents critical to claims and other valuable information in the shredder bins."
Early this month, an internal search found thousands of pieces of mail in the Detroit VA office that had never been recorded as having been received, Scott reported. The mail that had never been put into the system included original claim applications and medical evidence to support veterans' claims, Scott reported.
The Office of Inspector General official would not confirm the accuracy of Scott's report, but did not deny it, either.
A spokesman for the Department of Veterans Affairs had no comment.
Even before the recent reports, "Detroit has a reputation in the veterans community for losing documents," Scott said.
"It appears that when people get behind and overworked and you get untrained employees, they will just take documents and stuff them in a desk drawer."
Tim Clinton, first vice president of the Macomb chapter of Vietnam Veterans of America and a volunteer at the Macomb County Vietnam Veterans Support Center, was concerned but not completely surprised by Scott's report.
Clinton and many others who volunteer at the center have VA disability claims and "all of us, I am sure, would report that it takes a long time to get a claim through," Clinton said. "I'm talking months and years, not days and weeks."
Clinton said he is also aware of at least one case in which claim documents were lost after the Detroit office sent claims to a regional office in another state as a result of a backlog.
Of 11,846 of the most common type of claims in the Detroit office, 35.4 percent had been pending for at least six months, according to a recent report posted on the Department of Veterans Affairs Web site.
That was the highest percentage of six-month-old claims of any office in the department's eastern area and the second-highest percentage of six-month-old claims at any regional office in the country, the report showed.
Scott reported that four employees of the New York regional office, including the director, were placed on administrative leave this month after the audit found they were fudging figures to make it appear the office dealt with claims more quickly than it actually did.