Veterans' Disability Benefits:

VA Can Improve Its Procedures for Obtaining Military Service Records

GAO-07-98: Published: Dec 12, 2006. Publicly Released: Dec 19, 2006.

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The Ranking Democratic Member, House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, asked GAO to determine (1) whether VA's internal assessments indicate its regional offices are complying with the requirements of the Veterans Claims Assistance Act (VCAA) of 2000 for obtaining military service records for veterans' disability compensation claims and (2) whether VBA could improve its procedures for obtaining military service records for claims involving post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The Department of Veterans Affairs' (VA) internal assessments indicate its regional offices generally comply with VCAA's requirements for obtaining military service records for veterans' compensation claims. For example, of the decisions made by regional offices on compensation claims during the first half of fiscal year 2006, Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) quality reviewers found that less than 4 percent contained errors involving failure to obtain military service records. Similarly, of the appealed compensation cases decided by the Board of Veterans' Appeals during November 2004-January 2006, the board remanded less than 3 percent to VBA for rework due to deficiencies in obtaining military service records. However, VBA does not systematically evaluate the quality of research done on behalf of regional offices by a VBA unit at the National Personnel Records Center, where the service records of many veterans are stored. Regional offices rely on this unit to do thorough and reliable searches and analyses of records and provide accurate reports on the results. Without a systematic program for assessing the quality of this unit's work, VBA does not know the extent to which the information that this unit provides to regional offices is reliable and accurate. VBA potentially could improve its procedures and reduce the time required to process some veterans' claims for PTSD, which may result after a veteran participates in, or is exposed to, stressful events or experiences (stressors). Regional offices sometimes must turn to information contained in the military historical records of the Department of Defense (DOD) to verify the occurrence of claimed stressors. While regional offices are able to directly access and search an electronic library of such records for many Marine Corps veterans, they must rely on DOD's U.S. Army and Joint Services Records Research Center (JSRRC) to research such records for all other service branches. The JSRRC's response time to regional office requests approaches an average of 1 year. However, by building on work already done by several regional offices to establish and use an electronic library of DOD military historical records for the other service branches, VBA may be able to greatly reduce the time required to process many veterans' PTSD claims.

Status Legend:

More Info
  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To adequately ensure the quality of the records research done on behalf of regional offices by the VBA unit at the National Personnel Records Center, the Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs should direct the Under Secretary for Benefits to move forward in implementing a systematic quality review program that evaluates and measures the accuracy of the unit's responses to all types of regional office research requests.

    Agency Affected: Department of Veterans Affairs

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Starting January 2007, the Records Management Center (RMC) increased the systematic quality review program from a computerized review of Personnel Information Exchange system (PIES) responses to a review of the PIES responses and associated records sent with the PIES responses. Three reviewers review 5% of all PIES requests, which is approximately 1000 requests per month. Fifty percent of those responses are reviewed by an actual check of the records that are to be mailed to the regional office and the other 50% are computer reviewed through PIES.

    Recommendation: To improve its timeliness in deciding PTSD claims, the Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs should direct the Under Secretary for Benefits to assess whether VBA could systematically utilize an electronic library of historical military records, such as the one compiled by the Chicago regional office, to identify veterans whose PTSD claims can be granted on the basis of information contained in such a library, rather than submitting all research requests to the Joint Services Records Research Center.

    Agency Affected: Department of Veterans Affairs

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In September 2007, the Department of Veterans Affairs Compensation & Pension Service posted to its intranet website a database of historical military records to help claims processing staff verify veterans' claims of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) without submitting a research request to the Joint Services Records Research Center (JSRRC). It also conducted online training to help claims processing staff use the database.

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