A group of House Republicans on Thursday demanded a briefing from National Archives chief David Ferriero on how he intends to eliminate a bureaucratic backlog born out of the coronavirus pandemic that could force some veterans to wait up to two years for certain benefits.
The National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, where many of these paper records are stored, shut down in March 2020, along with many other government buildings. The building has sat empty, with employees working remotely.
Meanwhile, records requests, most of which require someone to physically search for documents within the building, piled up. The backlog has grown to more than 499,000 requests, a spokesperson for the National Archives told Roll Call in April, and will take 18 to 24 months to clear once the center is staffed at full capacity.
In a May 6 letter, Republicans on the House Oversight and Reform Committee and the Veterans’ Affairs Committee took issue with the NPRC’s “lack of planning” that led to the backlog, the lack of a plan to get employees back into the office and the confusion surrounding the center's use of $15 million in emergency appropriations from Congress in December 2020.
The records are key to unlocking veterans’ benefits like health care, burials, home loans and even COVID-19 vaccinations.
“Our military men and women and their families deserve far better than these delays. NRPC must clean up its act, address the backlog immediately, and give these families and Congress an explanation and timeline for fixing it,” Oversight panel ranking member James R. Comer, R-Ky., said in an email.
Rep. Mike Bost of Illinois, ranking Republican on the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, agreed.
“Veterans need answers,” Bost said in an email. “The NPRC serves a vital function. Congress has provided the resources the NPRC needs to safely resume normal operations. It is unacceptable that we continue to receive mixed messages about when veterans will have timely access to their records. I hope Archivist Ferriero will fix this as soon as possible.”
And this is not the first time that Congress has raised questions in an issue that is gaining traction on both sides of the aisle.
In an April 5 letter to President Joe Biden, Reps. Warren Davidson, R-Ohio, Deborah K. Ross, D-N.C., and Bost, along with 182 other lawmakers, requested a high-level intervention by the administration to address the backlog.
At the time, a spokesperson for the National Archives said the $15 million was being used to modernize the center’s operations. That includes digitizing documents and standing up a new call center that can be staffed remotely.
But lawmakers feel that the responses from the National Archives were inadequate. Now, House Republicans are asking for a briefing from Ferriero, and an explanation for how he intends to address the growing backlog.