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Hundreds of Butler County veterans in limbo because of records delay

Hamilton Journal News - 2/24/2021

Feb. 24—Butler County officials are outraged that almost 600 critical veterans personnel records have been in limbo since the National Personnel Records Center was essentially shuttered by the coronavirus pandemic.

Records like proof a veteran was honorably discharged are required for veterans to receive medical benefits or military honors at their funerals. The records center in St. Louis, Missouri has been all but closed since last March.

The Butler County Veterans Service Commission has been waiting to receive almost 600 records so they can help about 350 veterans, according to Executive Director Mike Farmer. He has received about six records from the NPRC.

"If it is a traditional funeral and you wanted a flag-draped casket, that flag requires an honorable discharge from service, and we can't get that document because NPRC is shut down," Farmer said. "It is horrible, the absolute disservice that the federal government is doing. I realize we're all in COVID and we've all had to try and find ways to shift gears here, but they have to find a way to staff that place."

The NPRC website states the office closed except for emergencies from March 23 for three months. It reopened with 10% of its staff but on Nov. 7, "regressed back to a 'Closed — Except for Emergencies' operating status when local public health metrics worsened."

U.S. Rep. Warren Davidson, R-Troy told the Journal-News 487,000 records requests nationwide remain unfulfilled. He said the center requested money to reopen and Congress gave it $15 to $20 million.

"When they say 'closed again' that would imply that they were actually open," Davidson said. "They closed what little functionality they had ever restored for a period of time in November, which we were like what are doing closing down all the way again you're still with a giant backlog, you have to find a way to work. We gave them enough money where literally they could work in Hazmat suits."

The NPRC site notes records newer than 2000 are available online and they continue to handle medical treatments, burials, and homeless veterans seeking admittance to a homeless shelter. Farmer said that's not true.

"I was told they have less than 10% working and they are working remotely," Farmer said. "However at the record center they house 60 million veterans paper records and you can't access those remotely."

He said because of the backlog the Veterans Administration claims are in limbo because they can't get them certified and here his office can't enroll people in VA medical care for the same reason.

Davidson said veterans are also unable to get prioritized for COVID-19 vaccinations, disability compensation, GI Bill education benefits, VA loans, life insurance and other benefits, because they can't produce the necessary paperwork. He said they have been waiting since November for an answer as to who made the decision to essentially close the facility and why the money Congress provided isn't being used to reopen.

He said he is planning to take a trip to St. Louis soon to get a first-hand look at the situation and hopefully talk to Director Scott Levins, to find out what the problem is. He said in the beginning of the pandemic there were very strict occupancy rules in place by the state of Missouri and the city, but it should be open now.

He said President Joe Biden could issue an executive order — something he has done frequently since taking office — but he isn't sure anyone has asked. The legislature could also take action. He and his fellow congressmen took a non-partisan step sending a joint letter to the director in November, but Davidson said it might be time for official legislation.

"Giving a mandate that it shall be open before this date with full functionality is not a bad piece of legislation," Davidson said. "That may be the thing that it takes to do it. As we speak there is another COVID relief package floating through congress, $1.9 trillion, it's going to be something that will pass so hopefully we can attach some language to that, that makes sure they work."

The BCVSC served 6,673 in pre-pandemic 2019 and last year, when no in-person appointments could be held with veterans due to the coronavirus, the board served 5,792 vets. The agency is still able to help the estimated 24,000 county veterans, but the board has been trying reach more vets who don't know about all the benefits available to them.

Board President Chuck Weber said serving new clients who don't have their paperwork is a challenge with the backlog.

"We are still serving I think a meaningful number of people, so we're not totally discouraged by it," Weber said. "But when I see that there is a back-up of veterans on certain requests for service, this is what's frustrating. We've got the capacity now and we can't serve across the board."

The phone lines at the NPRC are unmanned so the Journal-News was unable to get comment.


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