The Postal Service's weeks-late and missing-mail problems are causing havoc with the medical diagnosis of some patients - and businesses' livelihoods.
Dr. Sow-Yeh Chen, director of Temple University's oral-pathology laboratory, says that because tissue specimens arrive weeks late in the mail - or not at all - his lab is delayed in identifying diseases, and doctors are delayed in treating patients for cancer and other illnesses.
"This is unacceptable," said Chen. "Surgeons and patients are concerned about diseases, such as cancer, and are waiting for reports."
The lab has had intermittent mail problems since 2006 - the year the new processing center opened in Southwest Philadelphia - but Chen said that this year the problems worsened. On Oct. 8 and Nov. 21, a total of 53 specimens, which had been delayed in the mail by two to four weeks, arrived at his office.
Tissue specimens usually arrive overnight or the next day, he said. It takes 24 to 26 hours to identify a disease and issue a report about the specimen, he said.
"One specimen did not arrive for three weeks, so the doctor did another biopsy," Chen said. "The patient was anxious and upset because clinically, it looked like cancer.
"The day we received the new specimen, the old specimen arrived," he added. "And it was cancer."
Once specimens arrive in the lab, they are put through an automatic processor overnight. Pathologists then make thin tissue sections and examine them by microscope. Afterwards, the doctors write a report and fax it immediately to the surgeon, Chen explained.
In an Oct. 9 letter to the Postal Service, Chen complained about the late deliveries, and a postal official, Cindy Watts, has been working with another physician, Dr. Gordon Pringle, to solve the delivery problems at Chen's office.
Like many others, Chen thought he had an isolated mail problem.
But an Oct. 24 complaint filed by the American Postal Workers Union alleged that senior officials of the Postal Service's processing plant in Southwest Philly ordered clerks to reduce the daily mail count by undercounting hundreds of thousands of pieces.
The allegedly phony records, coupled with a yearlong ban on overtime, has resulted in a chronically understaffed plant - unable to process unsorted mail, which sits in overflowing bins for days and weeks.
The mail backlog is transferred in spurts to neighborhood post offices, where it can sit for another couple of days, say letter carriers.
On Jeweler's Row, Toni and Edward Hewish, owners of Eagle Dial, on 8th Street near Sansom, say that their mail deliveries have been a "nightmare" for the past year, causing havoc with their business.
Toni Hewish said that they work with watchmakers who send them the dials of watches, which they refinish and return by mail - which she hand-stamps.
Postal workers "don't read 'hand stamp,' " she said. And mail-processing equipment, which handles small parcels, "kicks out" these packages, possibly because the watch dials are inside metal containers.
"I will get a hole in the bag and the dial is missing," she said. "We were losing a lot of dials for a while."
A postal worker who spoke anonymously for fear of retribution said that some processing machines rip up the mail, and occasionally injure a worker.
"Those machines are horrendous," the worker said. Ripped mail is dumped into a waste bin, with occasional uncoded first-class mail, say postal workers, and then, it's destroyed.
"They put me through hell, and I lost business," Toni Hewish said. "And now we get mail sometimes after 5 p.m, and my landlord has to take it in.