Report: 300,000 vets may have died waiting for VA care

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — More than 300,000 veterans may have died while waiting for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to process their applications for health care, according to a report by the VA’s Office of the Inspector General.

But the VA’s system for monitoring and tracking health care applications is so unreliable and the agency’s procedures so inadequate that investigators said they could not determine how many of the pending applications represented veterans who actually applied for benefits, or when they applied.

Last year, the House Veterans Affairs Committee asked the inspector general to look into whistle-blower allegations that the VA had a backlog of 889,000 applications for health care benefits, and that employees had improperly purged or deleted thousands of records.

Investigators found the VA’s enrollment system, as of Sept. 30, 2014, had about 867,000 pending records, and 35 percent of those were for 307,000 deceased individuals, according to an analysis of Social Security Administration data by the IG’s Office.

Eighty-four percent of the deceased died more than four years ago, and VA officials in charge of the division “have been aware that many pending records ... are records of individuals reported as deceased,” the report states.

U.S. Rep. Dan Benishek, a Republican from the Upper Peninsula and a former VA surgeon, called the IG’s findings “tragic.”

“No veteran who has served in the defense of our nation should ever die from bureaucratic incompetence,” said Benishek, a member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee.

“We continue to provide the VA new tools and authority to help instill a culture of accountability, but unless the VA starts telling the truth about the extent of the mismanagement, no one will be able to provide the solutions we need to fix the problems.”

Officials told the IG’s Office that Veterans Affairs policy limited their ability to remove deceased veterans from the enrollment system by accepting only a narrow range of sources as official verification of death — those that occurred in a Veterans Health Administration facility, were verified by a death certificate or were transmitted by the National Cemetery Association.

“We are currently examining the feasibility of using additional databases as allowable authoritative sources of death notifications into VHA’s Enrollment System,” Dr. David J. Shulkin, the VA’s under secretary for health, wrote in an Aug. 14 memo responding to the inspector general’s report.

The inquiry also found that Veterans Affairs employees incorrectly labeled unprocessed applications as complete and possibly deleted at least 10,000 transactions within the last five years.

The IG substantiated allegations that VA employees discovered 11,000 unprocessed health care applications and 28,000 transactions related to application updates or correspondence in January 2013.

Part of the problem, according to the inspector general, is that the bulk of the pending records had been inactive for years. VA officials never established limits on how long health care records could remain “pending” before a determination is made about eligibility.

“We regret the inconvenience and potential hardship on applicants for health care, and we are working hard to restore veterans’ confidence and trust in VA’s systems and staff,” Shulkin wrote.

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