In Virginia, hundreds of veterans had their colon cancer screening tests invalidated after the results took months to arrive by mail. An Atlanta college student missed an academic trip to Ghana when their passport with two-day shipping took a month to show up. A bride in Texas had to rent a dress for her wedding after hers spent weeks stuck in a Houston postal facility.

Across the country, residents and businesses have been reporting widespread slowdowns in mail and package delivery by the U.S. Postal Service. The delays have become so persistent that members of Congress have gotten involved, urging the Postal Service to drastically correct course and raising concern about what impact the disruptions could have on mail-in ballots in the upcoming election.

The delays appear to largely stem from a new system the Postal Service began rolling out last fall that will eventually funnel all the nation’s letters and packages through a consolidated network of 60 regional distribution centers — similar to the airlines’ hub-and-spoke model. The change is part of a wider $40 billion, 10-year overhaul of the network that Postmaster General Louis DeJoy has said will reduce costs, improve reliability and make the Postal Service more competitive. But in some instances, the plan has done the opposite, according to the Office of the Inspector General for the Postal Service, members of Congress and Postal Service advocacy groups.

“It’s just a dumpster fire right now,” said Leo Raymond, a former Postal Service manager and managing director of Mailers Hub, an industry group for direct mail companies. He said his members have had everything from customer bills to strategically timed marketing material caught up in the delays. “If you’re a business, you’re going to be discouraged from using the mail because you want your stuff to actually get there.”

Nationwide, 87% of first class, two-day mail arrived on time during the last three months of 2023, a 2.5 percentage-point decrease from the same period a year earlier, according to data published by the Postal Service inspector general. For mail intended to take three to five days, just 70% arrived on time, a decrease of 11 percentage points, the data showed.

A top senator with oversight of the Postal Service, Gary Peters, called on the agency last month to pause any further changes to its distribution network over fears the delays could worsen and spread. But an official with Peters’ office said there has been no indication the Postal Service plans to do so.

“The nature of USPS’s network changes has now raised significant concerns including the potential for degraded rural service due to fewer facilities, delayed delivery of election mail that would be processed at out-of-state facilities, and critical health information such as laboratory tests not being processed same-day due to decreased transportation trips,” said Peters, a Michigan Democrat, in a March letter to DeJoy.

Delays have been the most significant in some of the first regions to roll out the new regional distribution system, including Richmond, Virginia, Houston and the metro Atlanta area.

Mail delays have become so prevalent in Richmond, which implemented one of the first regional distribution centers in October, that Richmond General Registrar Keith Balmer told residents in February not to send their ballots for the March presidential primary by mail and to instead use one of three drop boxes in the city or to vote in person at an early voting location or a polling site on Election Day. For the upcoming election, Balmer said he will be strongly urging voters to use drop boxes.

“I understand that these issues extend beyond mere inconvenience; they represent a fundamental threat to our democracy,” Balmer said in a blog post on Feb. 26.

The Postal Service has attributed the issues it has had over the past six months in Atlanta, Houston, Kansas City and Richmond to a range of factors, including a weather-related roof collapse, the transition to new processing equipment, the loss of a transportation vendor and “executional complications arising from operational transitions,” the Postal Service said in a statement to NBC News. But it said the disruptions have been improving.

“We readily acknowledge and regret that there have been service performance issues in several major metropolitan areas in the past six months,” the statement said. “In each of these site-specific disruptions, we have moved quickly to understand the local issue and stabilize the situation. As a result, service performance is improving or has returned to expected performance in these local communities.”

For the November election, the Postal Service said in its statement that it will “employ a robust and proven process to ensure proper handling and delivery of all Election Mail, including ballots.” During the November 2022 midterm elections, 98.96% of ballots sent by voters to election officials were delivered within three days, 99.82% were delivered within five days, and 99.93% were delivered within seven days, according to the Postal Service.

While the Postal Service said it is working to correct the issues that have occurred over the past several months, a report released this month by the inspector general for the Postal Service highlighted the complexities of the problems in Richmond.

The Postal Service had spent $25 million converting an existing facility near Richmond into one that would serve as a central hub for mail traveling from more than 100 miles away in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. As the new system rolled out, residents in Richmond began reporting significant disruptions to their mail starting in October. In the final three months of 2023, just 66% of mail there arrived on time, the worst rate in the country, according to data from the inspector general.

The report detailed poorly supervised staff, including workers idly waiting for the mail to arrive and one mail handler sleeping on a parked forklift, along with sloppy handling of the mail, including packages scattered around the facility floor, pieces of mail that had fallen under equipment, and 2-month-old mail found sitting in a container in the truck yard.

Poorly planned vehicle routes, which were being constantly changed, also added to delays, with a lack of drivers and vehicles sitting idle while they waited for mail to be sorted. Some trucks left with just a small fraction of the mail they could carry. As a result, the number of extra trips to the facility increased eightfold and late trips were up by 30%, according to the report.

While the Postal Service had estimated the new facility would reduce costs by $14 million in 2024, the facility paid out an extra $5 million in unauthorized overtime in 2023 and had $3 million in questionable transportation costs, the report said.

Among the pieces of mail caught up in the delays where colon cancer screening results for veterans. The Richmond Veterans Affairs Medical Center told members of Congress in late January that 870 at-home colon cancer tests used to indicate whether a patient needs further screening took so long to arrive that they were invalid, with some tests taking months to be delivered.

A spokesman for the VA said the delivery of tests has improved since local congressional leaders raised the issue with Postal Service officials earlier this year, but the medical center is exploring other options for delivering the tests in case there are future problems.

Hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations to the Virginia Museum of History and Culture in Richmond were also snarled up in the delays, said museum President Jamie Bosket. He said the museum saw a drop-off in the number of donations it was receiving by mail in October, just as it normally would see a surge in year-end contributions. By December, the museum had received just 10 pieces of mail from donors compared to the hundreds it would normally get in that month.

“We were missing at least 600 pieces of mail that represented at least a quarter of a million dollars in donations,” said Bosket. “For us, when there’s a disruption to memberships and charitable giving it’s a disruption to every element of our operation.”

Then in late January, bundles of mail began showing up with hundreds of donations, many of them postmarked in October, he said. Bosket said he believes most of the mail from 2023 has been delivered, but the museum’s mail remains sporadic.

“Something is wrong,” said Bosket. “We don’t know what it is and we don’t know how to find relief long term or have any reassurance that we can reliably use the Postal Service.”

In Atlanta, residents have experienced similar delays since a new regional distribution center opened there in late February. After the facility opened, on-time delivery service in the region went from 60%-70%, which was already below average, to as low as 20%, according to Raymond. Local news organizations reported on hundreds of complaints from residents and long lines of trucks backed up at the facility waiting to drop off and pick up mail.

“Atlanta has been a complete house on fire,” said Raymond.

The HBCU Green Fund, which organizes an annual trip to Africa for students at historically Black colleges and universities, said it had nine passports stuck in the mail in Atlanta for more than a month before a trip to Ghana. The group had to scramble to get new passports and visas issued for the students less than 48 hours before they were scheduled to depart last month, but one student was unable to get a new passport and had to miss the trip.

In Houston, the delays began in December following the opening of a new regional distribution center there. During a January press conference by Rep. Al Green, a Texas Democrat, one bride said her $1,600 dress didn’t arrive in time for her wedding and she had to rent one at the last minute. Irene Ramirez said her 89-year-old father’s heart medication from the VA spent more than 18 days stuck in the mail in Houston. She said she even tried calling the White House to get help after spending hours on the phone with the Postal Service, only to be repeatedly disconnected.

“I understand we are all fallible humans,” Ramirez said. “But when the failures are ongoing and administrative and put people’s lives at risk, I feel we need to stop and quickly reverse course.”

Rep. Sylvia Garcia, a Democrat who represents portions of the Houston area, said the delays seem to have improved and she didn’t hear of any significant mail-in ballot issues during the March presidential primary. But she remains concerned about the upcoming November election.

“We’re approaching a major November election,” Garcia said during a call with reporters last month. “We need to make sure that we iron out any difficulties, any obstacles, any barriers, any issues now, so that we don’t end up in a situation much like we were in with the November ballots.”

In prior elections, the Postal Service has used special procedures to ensure mail-in ballots are promptly delivered. But any disruptions near the election, even relatively isolated ones, could have wide-ranging implications.

“Hopefully this won’t turn into a problem,” said Steve Hutkins, who runs the website Save the Post Office. “But if the election is really close and a couple of key states have mail ballot issues, it could be a nightmare.”

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