Winston-Salem, NC-- The Veteran's Affairs office in Winston-Salem is scrambling for space after an Inspector General's report found thousand of claims files stored improperly.
The recent report estimates about 37,000 claims folders stored on floors, on top of and filing cabinets. The report states that the problems have been piling up since 2005. That's when the office took over processing some national veterans benefits claims. The office also caters to an additional 700,000 veterans in North Carolina alone.
Regional Director Cheryl Rawls says they simply ran out of space.
The Inspector's report says the "excessive number of claims folders" has caused concerns about unsafe workplace, "potential to compromise the integrity of the building" and "increased risk of loss or misfiling, as well as unnecessarily exposed to potential water and fire damage."
There was also a concern about the problem affecting workflow. Employees have to use ladders and step stools to reach some of the files that are stacked about two feet high above existing, cabinets that are filled to capacity.
In 2011, an employee reported being injured while trying to reach one of those files.
Since the May 2012 report, a building engineer has inspected the structural integrity and determined it was safe.
Rawls says the inadequate storage was never in the way of veterans getting their benefits and no one's claim was overlooked.
"We supplied those tools that [employees] needed to be able to access those files for those veterans; where we made sure that veteran's cases continued to be processed," Rawls said in an interview with News 2.
The director, who has only been on the job for two months, says the office saw the problem piling up and instead of looking at short term solutions, they were trying to look at along term fix and inadvertently caused the conditions the Inspector General found.
The clutter has since been cleaned up. Some of the files have been moved to old offices and few cabinets relocated in the basement of the Winston-Salem federal building.
However, files are still not in the condition the Inspector General would permanently like to see them.
Rawls says in the meantime, they are working toward a permanent and long term solution by 2014.
"I'll tell you, we're watching it. We don't condone what happened there. And we want veterans to know that their files are at the center for what we do here in taking care of them," she said.
She also adds that her office has gotten a $400,000 grant to find a larger space for storage and in keeping with department plans, their storage system will be completely digital by 2013.
There is also plans to overhaul the physical structure in two years.
News 2 reached out to our local lawmakers to see what they think about the problem and find out what they will do to fix it.
We are still waiting for many of them to get back to us, but we did meet up with Congressman Howard Coble Wednesday afternoon.
Coble said his staff is very aware of this issue and he's directed them to stay on top of it.
"It appears to be inexcusable. Of course, this is 20/20 hindsight on my part, but this is inexcusable and the veterans are the losers," Congressman Coble said.
Senator Kay Hagan is also concerned about the files.
In a statement released to WFMY News 2, Hagan said, "The improper storage of approximately 37,000 veterans' files at the Winston-Salem VA office is unacceptable. North Carolina has the 6th highest number of veterans in the country and each and every one of these men and women deserve first-rate care and attention. Compounding the problem, the storage situation at the Winston-Salem VA creates an unsafe work environment for employees and increases the risk of damage and loss of files. The VA must develop and implement a plan to relieve the over-storage burden and ensure files are stored in a manner that will allow for efficient claims processing. While I am pleased that the VA has taken steps to comply with the Inspector General's recommendations, more needs to be done. I am committed to working with the VA to ensure that our nation's veterans receive the treatment and care they deserve."
Senator Burr also released the following statement to WFMY News 2, "The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is currently facing a massive and unacceptable claims backlog, and the situation at the Winston-Salem VA Regional Office is a symptom of the larger problems, which persist despite Congress having provided increased funding for claims processing in recent years. It has become clear that increasing resources alone will not plug the gap. It is good to know that the VA Office of Inspector General is on top of this, and I will continue to work with VA officials to make sure risks to VA employees are limited and, more importantly, ensure that we are providing the best, most timely services possible to our veterans."
This is on-going issue, so when we hear back from other lawmakers, we will let you know.
To read the full report, click here.