Help is on the way for the hundreds of thousands of families waiting for key documents needed to unlock veterans benefits, as vaccines are finally getting prioritized for the federal agency whose slow return to the office created a massive backlog of records requests, half a million requests long.
The new vaccine access for National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) employees comes after NBCLX uncovered a backlog of approximately 500,000 records requests that had been growing since the agency told more than 90% of its workforce to work from home, but did not provide them laptops or access to the key documents they needed to do their jobs. Even when COVID-19 infection rates subsided around the NPRC’s facility in St. Louis this spring, the agency made little progress in returning employees to the office.
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However, when Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough found out about the NPRC delays, he initiated talks with the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to allocate vaccines specifically for NPRC employees. The NPRC is under the National Archives and Records Administration, which was not included in the VA’s initial vaccine priority list.
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“It’s crazy that we haven’t gotten the NPRC and the (National Archive) folks…vaccinated,” McDonough told the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs last week. “Let’s get these guys vaccinated and let’s get ‘em back to work.”
Even though members of Congress sent the NPRC a letter in November about its productivity and allocated $50 million to help address the delays, it wasn’t until NBCLX started asking questions about the agency’s growing backlog in early March that it announced a return to approximately 20% office capacity.
Last week, the two U.S. Senators who lead the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, chairman Jon Tester, D-Mont., and ranking member Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, sent a letter to the White House asking for additional help to address the crisis.
It’s expected the new vaccine prioritization will help the NPRC accelerate employees’ return. An agency spokesperson said vaccine scheduling began this week, as did an expansion to 25% building occupancy.
McDonough testified Thursday that NPRC employees would get vaccines “within the next couple of days,” and a VA spokesperson said Friday the “discussions are nearing completion.”
NBCLX reported how the NPRC’s slow return to its St. Louis facility was leaving more than 200,000 veteran families waiting on the records they needed for benefit payments, access to veterans’ facilities and homeless shelters, as well as burials in veterans’ cemeteries. Some families had been waiting since the pandemic began, and internal estimates indicated it would take the NPRC 18 months to clear its entire 500,000-request backlog.
One member of Congress told NBCLX the backlog made him “mad as hell,” and the agency’s failure to make better use of staff time while working remotely was unacceptable. McDonough said he wanted to see long-term improvements at the NPRC too, which includes optimizing access to millions of veterans’ records that only exist in paper form.
“Let’s get those records digitized so that we’re not stuck in this place again,” he told the committee Thursday.
A National Archives spokesperson told NBCLX in a statement the agency has begun the process of digitizing more records so employees can access them from home, that the additional on-site staff has improved its responsiveness on the most urgent requests, and that NPRC support to the VA has returned to pre-pandemic levels.
Noah Pransky is NBCLX’s National Political Editor. He covers Washington and state politics for NBCLX, and his investigative work has been honored with national Murrow, Polk, duPont, and Cronkite awards. You can contact him confidentially at email@example.com or on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.