The leader of the U.S. Postal Service announced Tuesday he would suspend changes that delayed some veterans' mail-order prescriptions and caused other issues, until after the November election.
Postmaster General Louis DeJoy said "longstanding operational initiatives," which he said "predate" his arrival at USPS, have been "raised as areas of concern as the nation prepares to hold an election in the midst of a devastating pandemic."
Those concerns included veterans who have faced long wait times -- sometimes weeks -- to receive their prescriptions, medical equipment and other important mail from the Department of Veterans Affairs, such as medical testing results and benefits decisions.
Department of Veterans Affairs prescriptions mailed by the U.S. Postal Service in the past year have seen delays of nearly 25%, the federal agency recently told Disabled American Veterans.
DeJoy's focus was on election mail, though.
"To avoid even the appearance of any impact on election mail, I am suspending these initiatives until after the election is concluded," he said in a statement Tuesday. "I want to assure all Americans of the following: Retail hours at post offices will not change. Mail processing equipment and blue collection boxes will remain where they are. No mail processing facilities will be closed. And we reassert that overtime has, and will continue to be, approved as needed."
DeJoy said USPS will also have resources on standby "in all areas of our operation, including transportation" by Oct. 1 "to satisfy any unforeseen demand."
Internal memos and USPS staff, including some veterans like Cole Butterfield, an Army vet and American Postal Workers Union leader in Oregon, said package delays, including veterans' prescriptions, were caused by new policies that discouraged overtime, meaning packages were left behind if they would delay carriers on their routes.
USPS is one of the country's largest veteran employers, with nearly 100,000 veterans on staff (about 15% of the total USPS workforce). About 60% of the veterans working at USPS have a disability rating, the agency estimates.
Capitol Hill lawmakers -- mostly Democrats, including top Veterans Affairs committee leaders -- last week demanded USPS leadership to overturn recent policy changes that may have caused the delays. Now, new Postmaster General, Louis DeJoy has agreed to appear before Congress Aug. 24.
Connecting Vets first reported the delays, according to dozens of veterans, VA pharmacy staff and pharmaceutical company leaders, on Aug. 5. By Aug. 17, more than 200 veterans and caregivers, along with dozens of VA employees, pharmaceutical leaders and USPS staff confirmed that Postal Service issues are delaying veterans' medications, sometimes by weeks. They provided documents showing medication shipping delays, internal memos and more.
The vast majority of VA prescriptions are fulfilled by mail from a group of seven massive, automated hub pharmacies across the country, the Consolidated Mail Outpatient Pharmacy (CMOP) system. That centralized pharmacy system processes about 80% to 90% of all VA outpatient prescriptions and almost all (90%) of those are shipped through USPS. The other prescriptions are typically filled at local VA medical facilities.
VA's mail-order pharmacy system processes 120 million prescriptions per year, nearly half a million prescriptions daily and each working day, more than 330,000 veterans receive a package of prescriptions in the mail. Veterans who live further from VA medical facilities, especially in rural and remote areas of the country, often depend on mail-order prescriptions
To help mitigate delays, VA told Congress and DAV previously that it was forced to switch to alternative delivery services, such as UPS and FedEx, in several areas across the country, among other measures, to expedite shipping for medications.
VA Press Secretary Christina Noel told Connecting Vets on Monday that "VA always encourages veterans to order routine prescriptions in advance" and the department "continually monitors prescription delivery times throughout the country and uses a variety of methods to ensure timely delivery, including in-person pharmacies, USPS and commercial carriers."
Noel said VA prescriptions delivered by USPS "are averaging less than three days delivery time, and more than 95% of VA prescriptions delivered by UPS next-day service have been on time," referring all other questions to USPS.
DeJoy, a top donor to President Donald Trump, took over USPS on June 15 after being appointed by the president. DeJoy issued a memo during his first month leading USPS which mentioned the Post Office's continued financial struggles and announced new policies, including that the USPS would now accept delayed mail to save costs.
"One aspect of these changes that may be difficult for employees is that — temporarily — we may see mail left behind or mail on the workroom floor or docks (in Processing and Distribution Centers), which is not typical," the memo reads, adding that USPS should avoid overtime payments caused by "late and extra trips."