Hassan leads bipartisan bill to erase backlog for vet records

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Jun. 23—WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., is leading a bipartisan effort in the Senate to demand the Department of Veterans Affairs reduce a backlog on requests from veterans and their families for medical and other military records.

Veterans routinely use the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to try to get timely information on records they must have to qualify for benefits.

Many do not receive a response from the VA within the 20 days required under FOIA.

Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., and Hassan have co-authored the FOIA Reform Act of 2021, which would mandate the VA come up with a plan to meet the FOIA timetable, to identify the root causes of the backlog, and to identify technology improvements that could speed up these requests in the future.

The bill also directs the VA to request the National Archives and Records Administration conduct a review of VA's FOIA process and its compliance. The VA then must report its plan and findings to Congress, under the bill.

Hassan and Tillis are members of the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs. A companion bill passed the U.S. House of Representatives earlier this month.

"We have seen a systemic failure from the VA to provide veterans timely access to their own personal records. It is a disservice to our veterans and their families," Hassan said in a statement.

In the past year, the New Hampshire Union Leader has reported the stories of families struggling to get information from the VA.

Families' VA difficulties

Forty years after going AWOL from the U.S. Army and still dealing with decades of post-traumatic stress and "anger issues," William Fuller of Littleton finally had his conditions confirmed by government experts and looked forward to receiving Veterans Administration benefits.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit in the spring of 2020, and the national clearinghouse in St. Louis, where 60 million paper records of veterans are stored, was shut down for three months.

Fuller, 70, was one of thousands of vets caught in a bureaucratic maze, waiting to receive official documents they need for everything from getting a job to buying a house. Even families hoping to get World War II medals of a deceased relative were put on hold.

Charlene Fyfe got stuck in that same black hole for more than a year, trying just to get a federal employee on the telephone as she searched for the military records of her father, Norman Levesque, 77.

The Milford woman credited Hassan and staff with pulling the strings necessary to get those documents to Fyfe.

They didn't come until after Levesque died last Dec. 12 at a local nursing home, four days after he contracted COVID-19.

"We have to take care of those who served our country, and this common sense legislation will require VA to take the steps necessary to comply with federal law while also bringing transparency to this process," Tillis said in a statement.

Last year, Hassan helped negotiate and pass a COVID-19 relief law that included $50 million to the National Archives and Records Administration, which houses the National Personnel Records Center. That center temporarily shut down during the pandemic.

"Passage of this bill will ensure that we are increasing accountability at the VA and keeping our promise to veterans," Hassan said.

klandrigan@unionleader.com

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