Some lawmakers are fed up with the National Personnel Records Center, or NPRC, falling behind by nearly 500,000 military record requests critical for benefits. And the center still lacks a plan to overcome a year of limited operations due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
"They're good folks, but I didn't see a sense of urgency," Rep. Warren Davidson, R-Ohio, said in an interview with Military.com. "The backlog is actually growing. Congress reacted and sent them money. We've been alarmed; we gave them more resources and yet the problem grows."
Last year, former President Donald Trump signed a $2.3 trillion coronavirus relief and government funding bill that included $15 million for the NPRC to combat the backlog, add resources for staff to work remotely and hire temporary employees. The funding also included a stipulation that the center could not furlough employees.
A spokesperson for the NPRC said that ensuring a safe work environment is the center's top priority and that its employees are in the midst of being vaccinated.
"The staff at NPRC, many of whom are also veterans, have served with distinction throughout the pandemic, responding to over 167,000 requests from veterans, many of which involved burials, medical emergencies, homeless veterans seeking shelter, and comparable emergencies," the spokesperson said.
Davidson toured the NPRC's St. Louis facility Monday and said he was shocked that there isn't a timeline or plan to get the backlogged requests processed. The NPRC spokesperson said that it is "achieving some success" digitizing its vast library of records, which will make it easier to serve veterans electronically.
Most records for veterans who left the service in the past two decades are available electronically, but those whose records exist only on paper rely on human assistance to access them. Personnel records can be required for disability claims, proof of veteran status for other benefits, documentation in lawsuits and personal archives.
Yet the backlog continues to grow while the NPRC waits for updated guidance from the Biden administration.
"We do not have a firm timeline for returning to 100% occupancy of the facility," the NPRC spokesperson said. "We have been and will continue to follow the guidance of the administration regarding COVID-19 safety protocols, including its guidance regarding safe occupancy limitations in federal facilities."
The NPRC is working at 25% capacity, which equates to 187 staff on site operating in two shifts per day and on weekends, according to the spokesperson. Some of its work is also being conducted by employees remotely.
The center also is adding 100 additional staff to boost its attempt to catch up. There have been 63 cases of COVID-19 exposure at the facility, which requires a deep cleaning of the building and the staff to be quarantined, significantly bogging down the workflow.
Davidson and other legislators plan to meet with White House staff soon to discuss the problem that has had Congress' attention since November, when a bipartisan group of 233 lawmakers wrote a letter to the head of the NPRC amid mounting concerns from constituents unable to access their records.
"Some of this stuff are things that need to be turned around in a day or two -- for example, records to show eligibility for burials," Davidson said. "I saw a record request for a funeral from January."
Davidson argues that the St. Louis building where records are processed is a massive and open warehouse, meaning it could be safe to bring in more employees. According to guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the coronavirus is less likely to spread in large spaces as opposed to tight office environments.
"If you need the National Guard to deploy to help file records faster while in Hazmat suits, sure. … I mean, there has to be a way to accomplish the mission. We've sent in millions of dollars, and the problems have only grown," Davidson added.
-- Steve Beynon can be reached at Steve.Beynon@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @StevenBeynon.