New law should help erase record backlog for veterans

Jan. 6—WASHINGTON — Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., said a bipartisan law she co-wrote should eventually end a long backlog for veterans waiting to get medical and other records from a federal clearinghouse.

Over the past year and a half, Sens. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., and Shaheen have worked to assist New Hampshire veterans and their families caught in this bureaucratic maze, made only worse during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the spring of 2020, officials shut down for three months the U.S. National Personnel Records Center based in St. Louis, where 60 million paper records of veterans are stored.

"Our veterans shouldn't face exorbitant wait times and fight unnecessary red tape to get the information they need to access the benefits they've earned and deserve," Shaheen said. "Our bill confronts the administrative challenges that led to the backlog at the Department of Veterans Affairs so the administration can speed up the claims process."

The Union Leader profiled William Fuller of Littleton, who waited to receive documents qualifying him for veteran benefits 40 years after he had gone AWOL from the Army and suffered post-traumatic stress.

In 2021, Charlene Frye of Milford landed in the same predicament for more than a year as she searched for the military records of her father, Norman Levesque. With Hassan's help, Frye received the documents but not before Levesque, 77, died in December 2020 from complications after contracting COVID-19.

With Sen. Thom Tillis, R-South Carolina, Hassan in 2021 proposed the reform, which contained many of the provisions Shaheen got into the omnibus defense spending bill that President Joe Biden signed late last month.

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. Jon Ossoff, D-Georgia, authored this final change with Shaheen along with Republican Sens. Mike Rounds of South Dakota and Mike Braun of Indiana.

Families caught in snafu

The snafu has held up the families of veterans seeking everything from getting a job to buying a house and even survivors seeking to get World War II medals of a deceased relative.

"Our veterans deserve the benefits and resources they were promised for their service to our nation so they can prioritize their health, find employment and build healthy lives at home," said Shaheen, a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

"This new law will help ensure our nation meets those obligations."

The law requires the U.S. Archivist to submit to congressional committees within 60 days a comprehensive plan to eliminate the backlog with a firm timeframe to meet the goal of resolving 90% of all cases within the 20-day period.

The records center received $20 million in the defense spending bill and its leadership has 30 days to inform Congress of any additional staffing it could need to meet the goal.

In 2020, Hassan helped get into a COVID relief bill $50 million for the National Archives and Records Administration that houses the National Personnel Records Center.

She sought this reform starting in 2021 after concluding the VA wasn't doing enough to reduce the backlog.

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

klandrigan@unionleader.com