A South Jersey printer says 3,365 envelopes he mailed to Medicaid subscribers last month were destroyed and returned three weeks later in hampers along with a withered orange, a bottle of joint ointment, a videotape wall-rack, books, trash and unrelated mail.

"The envelopes were torn, shredded, crumpled and marked with what appears to be a black roller or tire marks," said Gregg Clark, vice president of Hamilton Press in Berlin, Camden County. "The total destruction of printed materials" looked like "remnants from an accident," he said.

"It was nothing less than shocking," he added.

On Nov. 24, Hamilton Press mailed the $15,000 print job, wrapped in plastic on pallets, at the Bellmawr, Camden County, mail center, part of the beleaguered Philadelphia mail-processing system. The postage came to $6,000, Clark said.

Three weeks later, more than 1,500 of the "new member" packets for a Tarrytown, N.Y., health-care plan were returned damaged, he said.

"Handbooks were strewn loosely and separated from their envelopes," Clark said. The "welcome" letters addressed to specific recipients exposed personal information, a violation of federal regulations. And the mailing was not completed during the federally mandated time frame.

The 9-by-12-inch manila envelopes also contained a handbook and directory of medical providers that was "damaged beyond future use," he said.

Shrink-wrapped pallets of envelopes were mailed at the Bellmawr center but were returned from bulk-mail centers in Jersey City, N.J., and Northeast Philadelphia.

Because Hamilton Press cannot determine who received remaining packets, the entire job must be reprinted and remailed, Clark said.

He said Hamilton Press has used materials and mailing procedures recommended by the Postal Service since 2002.

But postal investigator Richard Spanburgh blamed weak envelopes for Clark's ordeal.

In a USPS report on the problem, Spanburgh wrote: "The paperstock used is not strong enough for these white parcels to be worked on our machines. The bundles sorter APPS machine is an option, but mail dropping into direct containers still breaks paper envelopes. Our rewrap area is repairing these parcels now."

According to postal workers at the Southwest Philadelphia processing plant, the APPS (automatic package-processing system) machine handles small parcels but throws off too many rejects, which then must be processed manually.

The machine was intended to replace clerks who manually keyed in ZIP codes, and to direct parcels into bins. With job cutbacks and a ban on overtime, the APPS machines were not staffed with enough people to handle the rejects, causing a delay in delivery, according to postal workers.

Last week, Jim Gallagher, the acting regional Philadelphia manager, advised postal workers that if the APPS machine rejects a parcel, it should be handled manually.

It could not be learned last night whether the Jersey City bulk-mail center follows this procedure.

"At this point, there is no reason to believe those packets went through the Southwest [Philadelphia processing] facility," a Postal Service spokesman said. "If anything, a part of it may have gone through the Jersey City bulk mail center and possibly the Philadelphia bulk mail center" in Northeast Philadelphia."

Clark, however, believes his shipment was damaged in both Philadelphia and Jersey City, because a Postal Service supervisor discovered part of the damaged shipment in Philadelphia.

"We are trying to revamp how we do mailings," Clark said.

Designers at the Bellmawr mail center recommended that his packet of materials be shrink-wrapped in future mailings. The Postal Service and the company are also exploring whether the shipments can go through fewer processing centers, Clark said.

"They can't trace it unless it's insured and traceable, an added cost," Clark added.

Meanwhile, Clark and the Postal Service are negotiating reimbursement. Clark wants $21,000, the cost for the print job and postage, but he said the Postal Service wants to reimburse him only for the postage and the cost of 1,500 packets.

"They are taking everyone's money, but they have to deliver on what's expected," he said. "The Postal Service isn't exactly the safe and perfect service that most people rely on them to be." *