Two Pennsylvania congressmen on Thursday released pictures they say show boxes of mail that went unanswered for years at the Philadelphia Veterans Affairs Regional Office.
In a letter sent to a top VA official, U.S. Reps. Patrick Meehan (R., Delaware) and Mike Fitzpatrick (R., Bucks) questioned whether the mail has been destroyed, echoing one of several allegations lodged this week against the city's VA center in Germantown.
"Where is the mail pictured in the attached photographs, and what efforts are being undertaken to ensure that veterans that have sent these letters receive a prompt response?" the two asked in the letter to Allison Hickey, undersecretary for benefits.
The photos, taken by an employee in 2012, show stacks of white cardboard boxes, several marked with years ranging from 2008 to 2010 and the words to be shredded.
Those 96 boxes are separate from 68 others a team from the Veterans Affairs Office of Inspector General found on a June 20 visit to the facility, which oversees benefits for 825,000 veterans in Pennsylvania, Delaware, and New Jersey and also houses one of the country's three VA pension-management centers.
On the same visit, investigators also found evidence that dates on some old claims had been changed to make them appear new, sparking a review officials have said would likely take several weeks.
Problems with missing, unaccounted for, or shredded mail have plagued other VA offices. On Monday, the inspector general announced that a supervisor at the Baltimore regional office had stockpiled about 8,000 pieces of mail.
The boxes found in 2012 in Philadelphia were photographed by whistle-blower Kristen Ruell. On Monday, she told the House Committee on Veterans Affairs that employees under pressure to quickly sort mail had decided that the items could not be identified because the veteran had left off necessary information, such as a full name or Social Security number.
But Ruell said she went through the boxes and found pieces that could have been sorted.
"The mail that was in those boxes was not easily identifiable," she said. "But a lot of it was not impossible to identify. It just took a little bit of time."
Diana Rubens, the new director of the Philadelphia office, told the House committee that she believed the mail was connected to claims that had been processed. But she said that she would have to investigate further, that she just started her new position Monday.
At the hearing, Hickey said she would look into the issue as well and invited Meehan and Fitzpatrick to visit the Philadelphia office to receive answers to their questions. In their letter, the lawmakers accepted her invitation.