This year brought incredible challenges. COVID-19 protocols required many of us to change the way we live and work and that meant finding a way for my staff and I to continue deliver critical help and provide answers to questions about federal agencies. Constituent service is always my top priority but there was an increased sense of urgency to solve problems Arkansans faced as a result of this crisis.
Last spring, my staff fielded thousands of calls from people who were desperate for information about their Economic Impact Payment. The volume of calls and emails was so heavy that we couldn’t record them all. Out of all of the calls for help, 355 of them resulted in direct inquires with the IRS to track down lost payments and tax returns. The outreach we did on behalf of Arkansans with the agency increased 706 percent from last year.
More Arkansans asked for assistance with the Department of State. In 2020, we received 230 requests for help, an increase of 137 percent from 2019. Many of those cases were citizens who were stuck overseas after borders were closed in order to stop the spread of COVID-19. Repatriation efforts dominated the State Department’s work for many months and we helped Arkansans return home from all over the world.
Other troubles Arkansans have experienced has required congressional action. For example, many veterans are required to complete a compensation and pension (C&P) exam to verify their medical condition when applying for Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) benefits. Because the VA paused in-person exams for a period of time, the backlog has grown and it’s delayed benefits. I introduced a bill to increase the number of health care providers who are allowed to conduct these health assessments. Congress passed it and it’s headed to the President’s desk to be signed into law.
Veterans have also experienced delays in getting their service records from the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC). My staff relies on this office to get veterans’ records that are needed when filing for a wide range of VA benefits. The facility has limited the number of employees allowed to work in the large archive because of COVID-19. Right now, it’s operating at less than 10 percent of normal capacity and staff is only servicing emergency cases. This has resulted in a nearly 120 percent increase in claims and appeals waiting on federal records.
It is unreasonable that veterans must wait months for their records. Congress recently increased funding for the NPRC so it can expand its remote work capability in order to address the backlog.
While working in an evolving landscape and delivering the services we’re recognized for, I was still able to visit with health care heroes, small business owners and school officials across 50 counties to see how federal COVID-19 relief programs are supporting the needs of Arkansans and learn what improvements can be made.
While some federal agencies are struggling to meet the changing demands of their services, my staff and I remain committed to doing all we can to help during these challenging times. We will continue to push for answers for Arkansans who need us as our nation, and the world, look to a brighter year ahead.