AJC Watchdog: First Alert

Keeping watch on those who hold the public trust and money

Whistleblower to VA secretary: Fix problems at veterans enrollment office

Dr. David J. Shulkin, who faces a Senate confirmation hearing Wednesday to become the new secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, is no stranger the major problems at the VA's national health enrollment office in Atlanta.

Shortly after he became Under Secretary overseeing the Veterans Health Administration, Shulkin visited the national Health Eligibility Center (HEC) in DeKalb County in August 2015. The AJC reported in 2014 about a series of failures at the center, including a backlog of 889,000 veterans’ healthcare applications.

“He pledged to stay in contact with us and stay on top of the problem,” said Scott Davis, an employee at the facility and a whistleblower who testified before Congress about systemic problems at the HEC.

Davis said Shulkin never returned to the Atlanta office. A critical audit by the VA’s Office of Inspector General came out just weeks after his visit that confirmed the problems highlighted by the AJC and whistleblowers like Davis.

But Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson became the senior VA executive overseeing the fixes. Davis said problems continue to persist and efforts to clear up the backlog of pending applications broke down through a flawed mail campaign last year.

On Dec. 28, an executive overseeing the campaign emailed Shulkin and Gibson alerting them to problems with the 545,000 letters the agency sent to veterans last spring in an effort to clear up the backlog.

Officials believe the letters requested wrong information from veterans and did not resolve the problem, the email reviewed by the AJC said. Matthew Eitutus, the acting director for VA member services, which oversees the HEC, apologized to Shulkin and Gibson for the error and the Dec. 28 email said that he alerted the inspector general's office.

If veterans don't respond correctly to the flawed request letter, their application will be purged after a year. That purging is scheduled to begin in March, Davis said, but the new VA secretary has authority to halt it.

"All he has to do is stop the process and create a legitimate awareness campaign to inform veterans how to get their applications out of the pending backlog," Davis said.

If the applications are purged in error, veterans will not get reimbursed for healthcare costs that should have been covered by VA, Davis said.

Shulkin will go before the Senate's Committee on Veterans' Affairs Wednesday at 2:30 pm. All indications are that Shulkin will have a relatively easy confirmation process and could be on the job by mid-February.

Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) chairs the committee and will be asking Shulkin questions on Wednesday. His spokeswoman Amanda Maddox did not say if Isakson will address the HEC issues directly with President Trump's nominee, but said the senator "plans to bring up a number of issues that have plagued the department."

"I can assure you that Senator Isakson continues to work to ensure that every veteran in Georgia receives the care, support and benefits that they have earned," Maddox said. "He has always and will continue to work with the VA to ensure facilities in Georgia are operating efficiently and effectively to accomplish that goal."

An email to VA's press office in Washington on Tuesday was not immediately returned.





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About the Author

Brad Schrade is a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter on the AJC’s investigative team.