Documents found in shredder after Nevada veteran’s family denied burial benefits

A new inspector general’s report says the VA Reno Veterans Benefits Administration Office inappropriately put claims-related documents in shred bins, affecting burial expenses that one veteran’s family was entitled to.

In another incident, IG staff found three medical documents were destined to be shredded without proper signatures.

“Had we not discovered these claims-related documents, Reno VARO staff would have inappropriately shredded them,” according to the 26-page IG report Thursday about shredding practices at 10 VA regional offices.

The Reno office has been a thorn in the side of many Southern Nevada veterans who have battled for VA benefits over the past few decades.

The IG report report found that the Veterans Benefits Administration’s controls on document shredding were so lax that they were not effective for preventing staff at some of the 10 regional offices “from potentially destroying claims-related documents.”

“We identified 69 of 155 claims-related documents improperly scheduled for destruction, which staff at 6 of the 10 VAROs (VA Regional Offices) had not properly associated with veterans’ claims folders,” according to the report’s findings.

The inspector general report noted that on Oct. 16, 2013, staff at the VA Reno office “received faxed evidence from the VA Southern Nevada Healthcare System. The evidence, a statement and supporting documents from a social worker, showed that the veteran died at a nursing home paid by VA.”

About two weeks later, on Oct. 30, 2013, the Veterans Benefits Administration “received a claim for burial benefits, which was incorrectly denied on January 6, 2014, because the faxed evidence had not been considered,” the report reads.

“We found the faxed evidence a gray shredding bin without the required signatures or initials, indicating that a supervisor did not review these documents to ensure they were appropriate for destruction,” the report says, adding that as a result the claimant did not receive the entitled $722 burial allowance.

Because the IG discovered the claims-related documents that were destined to be shredded, the VA Reno office was given a chance to reconsider the burial allowance claim, the report said.

Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., who is a member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, called the findings “unacceptable.”

“I am concerned about the VA Inspector General’s Report on document destruction, especially the discovery that the Reno Office has improperly shredded documents that could impact veterans receiving benefits they have earned,” Titus said in a statement Friday. “The IG also found that the Reno Office failed to keep and monitor shredding records.”

The VA office in Reno processes claims for service members, their families and survivors in Nevada and in five counties in Northern California. About 300,000 veterans live in Nevada.

U.S. Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., a member of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs, has been critical of VA Reno’s foot-dragging in processing veterans disability claims. After the backlog peaked in 2013, making the office among the nation’s worst for processing claims, he called for the ouster of VA Reno’s director, Edward Russell, who who was reassigned in April 2015 to a special assistant position in the Veterans Benefits Administration.

Heller’s spokesman Neal Patel said Friday the report shows “errors were being committed by VA employees in almost every corner of the nation, and it is critical these errors do not happen again.”

A statement for the VA Reno office stated that the Department of Veterans Affairs “is committed to ensuring Veterans’ records are protected and maintained with accuracy and care.”

“Although the number of document-handling errors identified by VA’s Office of Inspector General in a recently released report was extremely small, VA knows that every Veteran’s record is vitally important and sincerely regrets these human errors,” it states. “VBA has been working diligently to eliminate the potential for these types of errors by transforming its antiquated paper-based processing system to a fully electronic processing environment using digital records.”

A chart in the report shows six documents not appropriate for destruction were found in the VA Reno’s shred bin, among 11 that were found without any required signatures.

The Reno and New Orleans regional offices also failed to maintain violation logs required for document shredding, according to the report.

“At the Reno VARO, the RMO (records management officer) stated that he had not received guidance on maintaining a violations log but that there had not been any violations in the last 5 years,” the report reads.

Contact Keith Rogers at krogers@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0308. Find @KeithRogers2 on Twitter.

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