More than a year after the Veterans Affairs Department’s scandal first broke revealing that nearly 40 military vets had died while waiting for treatment at a VA hospital center in Phoenix, a new inspector general’s report raises the troubling question of whether officials have made any appreciable progress in record keeping and follow-through.
As of September 30, 2014, more than 307,000 pending records in the enrollment system – or about 35 percent of the total – were for individuals who had died months or even years ago, according to a report issued Wednesday. The records were so muddled that it was impossible for the IG to determine how many of them represented veterans who had specifically applied for health care benefits.
The VA has become Washington’s favorite punching bag because of its notoriously bad performance managing veterans’ applications for health care benefits and scheduling patients for appointments in a timely fashion. While the department has made important strides in clearing up backlogs and speeding up appointments, the effects from years of bad management persist.
According to the latest report, VA officials lacked adequate procedures for managing or updating their records – including responding to information from the Social Security system on veterans who had died while awaiting a response from the VA. Moreover, it was impossible to say with any certainty how many veterans currently seeking to enroll in VA health care are represented in the hundreds of thousands of pending records, according to the report.
Employees incorrectly marked unprocessed applications as completed, according to the IG report, and they possibly deleted 10,000 or more transactions from the Health Eligibility Center system over the past five years.
“Unless VHA officials establish effective procedures to identify deceased individuals and accurately update their status, [the enrollment system] will continue to provide unreliable information on the status of applications for veterans seeking enrollment in the VA health care system,” Linda A. Halliday, the deputy inspector general, wrote in the report.
The latest IG findings came in response to a request by the House Committee on Veterans Affairs' to investigate a whistleblower's allegations of rampant mismanagement within the agency’s Health Eligibility Center. According to the complaint, the Health Eligibility Center was sitting on an astounding backlog of 889,000 pending health care applications, and 47,000 veterans had died while waiting for a response.
The IG’s report said that the purported backlog of pending applications was “overstated” and that that most of the pending records have been inactive for years.
Scott Davis, a program specialist at the VA Health Eligibility Center and a whistleblower, told CNN that “thousands of veterans” who saw action in Iraq and Afghanistan have not received medical care because they have been stuck in the enrollment system’s massive backlog.
"People who fought, and who earned the right to VA health care, were never given VA health care," Davis told CNN, which first broke the story of the long waiting lists at the Phoenix VA facility that triggered congressional and Obama administration outrage. "They literally died while waiting for VA to process their health care application."
The latest IG report noted that in one case, a veteran who had initially applied for health care treatment in 1998 was kept in limbo for 14 years, while the VA until last year continued to carry unprocessed letters in its system for a veteran who had died in 1988.
The VA responded to the report with a statement saying it publicly acknowledged last year that its enrollment system management and data processing “are in need of significant improvement” and that veterans and other stakeholders were justified in their “confusion” – or, more accurately, outrage.
“We have been reaching out to veterans to let them know the additional information needed so that we may complete their applications,” the VA said, adding that as of June 30 the department had contacted 302,045 veterans by mail seeking required documents to establish their eligibility. So far, just 36,749 people have responded, and most of them were approved for coverage.
“As we continue our work to contact Veterans, our focus remains on improving the enrollment system to better serve Veterans,” the beleaguered department said.