More than 5,000 “personally identifiable” records of Virginia veterans were included in boxes of paperwork discovered Sept. 29 in a storage unit leased by a fired Virginia Department of Veterans Services employee.
The records included nearly 700 benefit claims that went unfiled, were filed late or were missing key documents.
After an exhaustive, seven-week examination of 20 to 30 boxes discovered in the former employee’s storage unit in Dinwiddie County, Veterans Service officials are now working to repair the damage that affected hundreds of veterans who filed claims.
With assistance from the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, which supplied seven full-time employees, the state Veterans Services agency worked 10 hours a day, six days a week since the trove of documents was found to sort through and preserve relevant records. They have been electronically scanned and uploaded into the VA’s system to ensure proper filing, said Thomas Herthel, the Veterans Services’ director of benefits.
“This was really a Herculean effort, and from a teamwork standpoint, it worked exactly the way that you would want it to work — especially in an unfortunate situation like this,” Herthel said. “The VA really came through and did an incredible job helping us out.”
The vast majority of the 5,051 records found in the storage unit were what the agency described as “personally identifiable information” of veterans — including their names, addresses and Social Security numbers — who had contact with the state agency.
As a precaution, the agency has arranged to have Equifax, a consumer credit company, provide credit watch and identity theft protection services to all of the affected veterans for one year at no cost.
But the agency’s internal investigation has not found any evidence that the personal and private information of the affected veterans was misused, or shared with or accessed by anyone outside the agency, Commissioner John L. Newby II said in letters that were mailed to state veterans this week.
But regrettably, the agency said, the benefit claims of nearly 700 veterans found in the storage unit had either been filed late or not filed at all, and others were missing medical and/or personnel records needed to process the claims. The records include:
- 577 claims that had not been filed by the former employee or were missing key documents;
- 60 appeals of denied claims that were not filed in a timely manner; and
- 41 claims that were filed late after the ex-employee failed to file them.
The latter involved “regular claims that were received by our employee and should have been filed in days,” Herthel said. “After a few months, when the impacted veteran hadn’t heard anything from the VA, they ‘refiled’ their claims themselves, or with the assistance of another of our offices or another organization.”
That effectively caused a delay in benefits to the veteran, Herthel said.
Most of the affected compensation claims are based on medical disabilities that resulted from, or were made worse by, the veterans’ military service, Herthel said.
The nearly 700 affected claims are now “all in the pipeline,” Herthel said, and are being reviewed by the federal Veterans Affairs Department for adjudication.
“And that process will take six to 12 months — maybe a little bit quicker than that,” Herthel said. “They’re all being expedited.”
Meanwhile, a Virginia State Police investigation of the document breach is continuing. A police spokeswoman said Friday that no charges have been placed thus far.
Because of the ongoing criminal probe, Veterans Services has not contacted the employee, who was fired from the agency’s benefits office at McGuire Veterans Affairs Medical Center on Aug. 25, 2015, a little over a year before the records were discovered in her storage unit. They were mixed with the employee’s personal papers and possessions.
Consequently, agency officials do not have any explanation why the documents — dated between 2011 and mid-2015 — were hoarded in her storage unit. Ninety percent were from the 2013 and 2014 time frame, Herthel said.
Before she was fired, officials found an unspecified number of unfiled claim applications in her office.
The former employee is herself a veteran who was an active member of the military for about a decade. She had been employed by Veterans Services from January 2012 until her August 2015 termination.
The Dinwiddie County Sheriff’s Office first alerted Veterans Services about the documents after the contents of the former employee’s storage unit were auctioned off to a bidder, and that person notified the sheriff.
The fired employee who had apparently leased the unit had stopped making rental payments and the unit was repossessed.
Beginning Thursday, Veterans Services mailed letters signed by the commissioner to all affected veterans, apologizing for the records breach and previously delayed or unfiled claims.
Concerns about vulnerabilities in the Veterans Services claims process prompted the agency to convert all of its benefits offices from a paper-based system to an electronic filing system by June 2015. Virginia was the first state to fully automate its veterans’ claims filing process.
“We deeply regret any impact that this unfortunate event may have on you and other affected veterans,” Newby said in his letter. “In continuing to use this electronic system, we will continue to reinforce standards with our employees to ensure that our veterans’ information is securely maintained.”
Herthel said the veteran community is “our community,” noting that many of the agency’s employees are veterans themselves, or active-duty spouses or dependents of veterans.
For example, Herthel is a retired Air Force judge advocate and Army intelligence officer who served more than 25 years in the Army and Air Force, including a combat tour in Iraq. Newby, his boss, grew up as a “military brat” and later served in the Air Force on the B-1 bomber and with the Army in special operations.
“We work hard each and every day to assist Virginia’s veterans to obtain the benefits they have earned through their service, or to give them a helping hand when one is needed,” Herthel said. “It’s incredibly unfortunate that one bad former employee could do so much harm. It’s personally important to us to make things right and to continue taking care of our veteran community.”