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Military records mismanagement thwarts veterans’ disability claims

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The Veterans Affairs Department should loosen its evidentiary standards for disability claims if it cannot locate lost records, the head of a group of lawyers who handle veterans’ claims told a hearing of the House Veterans Affairs Committee Tuesday.

Michael Viterna, president of the National Association of Veterans Advocates, said loss of service records “poses difficult, if not insurmountable, obstacles” for a veteran seeking to file a claim.

Richard Dumancas, deputy director for claims for the America Legion, told lawmakers it’s been difficult to locate records for many of the 653,000 Guard and reserve members who served in Afghanistan or Iraq.

For those who served with active duty units and were wounded, their personnel and medical records are literally scattered across the globe. Collecting the records has proved daunting for veterans trying to document disability claims.

Alan Bozeman, director of the veterans benefits management system at the Veterans Benefits Administration, said that after active duty service, these Guard and reserve members retain their own medical records, and if called up again, need to bring those records when they return to their units.

Personnel and medical records are stored and managed by a number of organizations, including the National Archives and Records Administration, VA and Defense officials said.

Scott Levins, director of the NARA National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, said the center holds 60 million military records, but since the mid-1990s, the military services stopped sending medical records of retirees to NPRC. The services also stopped retiring official military personnel files to NPRC in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and instead retain them in-house in electronic formats, Levins said.

James Neighbors, Director of the DoD-VA Collaboration Office, said Defense has provided VA with access to service-specific personnel records using the Defense Personnel Records Information Retrieval System since 2002, with access through a secure, Web-based application since 2007.

Neighbors said Defense has as policy to transfer medical records to the VA when a service member leaves active duty and currently transfer personnel and medical records data to VA for over 300,000 service members annually, most via electronic interface but some in paper form.

He added that Defense has a new agreement with VA to provide access to its health artifacts and image management solution, which will serve as a repository of scanned paper medical record, which he said is “on track for accelerated deployment by September 2013.” Nextgov reported in March 2011 that HAIMS will not be able to handle bulk scanning until 2013.

Bozeman told lawmakers that VA also has in place two contracts to scan 60 million pages of veterans’ paper records per month into its electronic system.

Dumancas and Viterna both said they viewed the entire records system as flawed and filled with holes that frustrate veterans filing disability claims. Viterna said the law needs to be changed to put the burden of proof for disability claims on the government, not individual veterans.

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