Isakson tells VA to fix enrollment flaws at Atlanta center


Bipartisan members of Congress, including Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., urged VA Secretary David Shulkin Tuesday to fix breakdowns at a VA enrollment center in Atlanta that is delaying benefits to thousands of veterans across the country.

Isakson and other Congressional leaders who oversee veterans issues wrote a March 3 letter to Shulkin, released Tuesday, that calls on him to correct the failure of the Health Eligibility Center (HEC) in DeKalb County to resolve a backlog of hundreds of thousands of health care applications.

VA leaders last year said they had a plan to contact veterans on the backlog and enroll them for health care benefits or clear their applications from the list. But a coding mistake reported by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in February led to veterans getting the wrong letters and further delayed a fix for potentially hundreds of thousands of applications.

“Given the enormity of the impact on veterans, we urge you to take additional steps to further ensure veterans receive every opportunity to complete their applications and that those applications are not improperly closed due to VA error,” the letter from the senators and congressmen said.

James Hutton, a VA spokesman, said Shulkin would not be available for an interview. Hutton said the VA on Monday responded to Isakson’s letter, but the VA would not make that response available to the AJC.

A statement said the agency conducted a review in December and found the letters sent to veterans were “reasonable and appropriate.”

“We found there was no need to send correction letters,” the statement issued by Hutton said.

The HEC operates in an office off Clairmont Road near I-85. It oversees health care enrollment for more than 150 VA hospitals across the country, serving some 8.76 million veterans. The backlog was  first reported in the AJC in 2014 based largely on whistleblower allegations. A congressional hearing and inspector general’s investigation later confirmed many of the newspaper’s findings.

The backlog involves health care applications of more than 800,000 veterans, but more than 300,000 are from veterans who died while their applications were pending. Some 545,000 veterans on the list are living, but their applications are stuck limbo on the pending list. A flawed roll-out of an online application several years ago compounded the problem.

Enrollment is a prerequisite for accessing full VA health services.

Ongoing enrollment problems

VA leaders for years had tried to downplay the backlog and even misled the public and veterans about the issue.

Last year, Matt Eitutis, a senior VA official who oversees the enrollment system, apologized about the breakdown and vowed to fix it through a mailing campaign that would contact veterans and try to enroll them. If they didn’t respond or chose not to enroll, the VA would remove their names from the list.

But a computer glitch led to a mix-up and some of the hundreds of thousands on the mailing list received letters with incorrect or misleading information. The matter was serious enough that the VA self-reported the issue to the inspector general’s office in December.

“We are distressed by continued reports of problems that may result in a delay in enrollment and subsequently health care, and a less than optimal first VA health care experience,” said the letter by Isakson, who chairs the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs, and Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, the ranking Democrat on the committee, and the two ranking members on the veterans oversight committee in the House.

VA was scheduled to begin purging applications from the backlog this month if veterans had not responded to the VA mailing campaign, which started in March 2016. Isakson asked Shulkin to delay purging effected veterans for another year until more outreach can be completed.

Step in ‘right direction,’ says whistleblower

Whistleblower Scott Davis, who testified before Congress about the backlog in 2014, sent a letter to President Donald Trump Feb. 21 and copied Shulkin, Isakson’s office and others in Congress about the upcoming purge of records.

The flawed notification letters are the latest in a long list of problems that have harmed veterans and prevented them from getting access to health benefits they earned, he said.

He said senior VA officials have continued to downplay the backlog, and said the plan to purge the records was intended to make it go away without actually fixing the underlying problems in the enrollment system.

“They tried to bury this as soon as possible before anyone could start asking questions in the veteran community,” Davis said.

He said Isakson’s actions calling for Shulkin to delay the purging is critical because widespread purging of records would set a bad precedent across the VA system.

“This is a huge step in the right direction to protect veterans and ensure they get the health care benefits they deserve,” said Davis.



Reader Comments ...


Next Up in Local

Family awarded $48 million in lawsuit over child's torture death
Family awarded $48 million in lawsuit over child's torture death

A jury awarded $48 million to the family of an 8-year-old girl who was tortured and killed in 2013 in a negligence lawsuit filed against the doctor who treated her, The Chicago Tribune reported. Jurors deliberated for two hours Wednesday before finding that child-abuse pediatrician Norell Rosado was medically negligent in his treatment of...
Police use Taser on Florida middle school student
Police use Taser on Florida middle school student

A school resource officer in Florida used a Taser on a middle school student while trying to break up a fight between her and another female student on Thursday, The Tampa Bay Times reported. The fight occurred after school in the bus circle at Morgan Fitzgerald Middle School, the Pinellas Park Police Department said. The officer tried to break...
Uber driver charged in rape of 16-year-old girl
Uber driver charged in rape of 16-year-old girl

An Uber driver in Georgia was arrested Thursday after a 16-year-old girl said she was raped in suburban Atlanta, police said. Abdoulie Jagne, 58, of College Park, was identified as the man police said allegedly raped a girl in the Gwinnett County city of Norcross, Gwinnett police spokeswoman Cpl. Michele Pihera said.  Uber officials said Jagne...
Firefighter dies battling California blaze
Firefighter dies battling California blaze

A California firefighter died Thursday while battling the Thomas Fire in Ventura County, KSWB reported. Cory Iverson, 32, of Escondido died near Fillmore while helping to battle the 10-day-old fire, which has burned more than 249,500 acres and destroyed more than 1,000 structures. Iverson had been with the Cal Fire department since 2009....
Eighth planet found orbiting distant star
Eighth planet found orbiting distant star

An eighth planet has been discovered orbiting a star 2,545 light-years from Earth, NASA announced Thursday. The star, called Kepler-90, is located in the Draco constellation. It is the first known star to have as many planets orbiting it as our solar system does, NASA said. NASA scientists had known about seven planets orbiting Kepler-90. The...
More Stories