The St. Louis-based agency responsible for storing military personnel and medical records is so bombarded with requests for information that it takes nearly three months to respond to inquiries, according to a new report by the General Accounting Office. The National Personnel Records Center (NPRC), part of the National Archives and Records Administration, maintains veterans' medical and personnel records and responds to requests for the records. The agency stores more than 55 million records, which contain information that veterans frequently need to get disability payments, health benefits, education benefits, home loan guarantees and permission to be buried in national cemeteries. In its report, "National Personnel Records Center: Plan Needed to Show How Timeliness Goal Will be Achieved" (GAO-04-599
), GAO found that it took NPRC an average of 54 days to respond to record requests in fiscal 2000. Only 6 percent of written requests for information were answered in 10 working days. "This report confirms the troubles that veterans have reported to me, and lays the foundation for Congress to provide the resources and legislative help to improve services at the NPRC," said Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., one of four senators who requested the report. In the fist six months of fiscal 2001, NPRC's backlogged requests totaled 214,000, GAO found, and the agency estimates that number will grow to more than 240,000 by December 2001. Until 1999, NPRC employees processed inquiries by digging through cardboard boxes stacked on 10-foot-high shelves, and sending handwritten forms out with copies of the records. It wasn't until February 2000 that telephones were installed on processors' desks so they could get extra information needed to clarify unclear requests. NPRC attributes the backlog to the loss of more than 15 percent of its workforce in fiscal 1995 and the ongoing implementation of a business process reengineering project, which aims to improve timeliness. But according to GAO, response time is not likely to improve in the near future. It is unclear whether NPRC will meet a timeliness goal of answering 95 percent of its information requests within 10 days by fiscal 2005, the report said. "In the long term, it is not clear that the reengineering project will result in NPRC meeting its timeliness goals," GAO found. "NPRC does not have a plan that shows how it will achieve its fiscal year 2005 timeliness goal." According to GAO, the agency has not specified time frames, staff or production levels needed to meet the 2005 goal. GAO estimates it will take seven years to eliminate the agency's backlog of requests. GAO recommended that the National Archives insist that NPRC develop a plan that shows what is needed to meet the 2005 timeliness goal. In a written response to the report, Deputy Archivist Lewis Bellardo agreed that a quantitative plan is needed. A completed plan is expected by mid-July. Sens. Tom Daschle, D-S.D, Tom Harkin, D-Iowa and John Rockefeller, D-W.V., requested the report along with Wellstone.