Both the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and the Privacy Act (PA) give the public the right to request access to records held by Federal agencies.
FOIA applies to all Federal agency records with access rights generally given to “any person.” However, one of the FOIA exemptions permits the withholding of information about individuals to protect their personal privacy.
The Privacy Act applies to only those Federal agency records that are in a “systems of records.” A system of records contains information about individuals that is retrievable using a name or personal identifier (e.g., claim file number). Privacy Act access rights are given only to individuals or their appointed representatives who are the subject of the records sought.
How long does VA have to process a request? The law requires VA respond within 20 working days of the date that the request is received by the custodian of the record. Within that time, the custodian of the record is required to at least advise the requester whether VA has any information responsive to the request. If feasible, the requested information will also be released within 20 working days. VA processes FOIA / PA requests on a first-in, first-out basis. Therefore, if there is a backlog of pending requests, it will take longer to provide a final response.
If the VA cannot provide the requested records within 20 working days, what do they do? The VA will provide the requestor with an interim reply in writing. This reply should include the following language:
This acknowledges receipt of your recent Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) – Privacy Act request, and to inform you of the decision to grant to you access to the requested records if found, and not exempted from disclosure by law. Any releasable sections of the requested records shall be provided to you after deletion of the parts that are exempt. You may expect to receive a response as promptly as possible. Our statewide telephone number is 1-800-827-1000.
FOIA – Privacy Act Officer.
By sending this response within 20 working days, the VA meets the law’s timeliness requirement. The VA will then send the requested documents on the first-in, first-out basis described above. Therefore, if you anticipate needing documents from your VA claim folder, a veteran needs to request these records in a timely and early enough manner prior to any deadline for submitting a claim. The request for the C-File should include the time, if you have wait for the VA to respond, to account for the delay in the VA’s response.