In 2014, senior VA officials who managed the enrollment of veterans for healthcare benefits misled the public about a backlog of veterans who were unable to get their healthcare applications approved.
The officials also retaliated against the chief whistleblower, Scott Davis, who testified before Congress and helped expose a problem that impacted as many as 890,000 veteran applications.
Last week, the new executive brought in to fix the struggling national Health Eligibility Center in Atlanta acknowledged the agency was too slow to react to the backlog of pending applications. And he offered an apology.
“We specifically owe Scott an apology for what we have found over the last six months,” said Matt Eitutis, Acting Director for Member Services with the Veterans Health Administration. “This process needed attention and we’re making those changes now.”
The question remains: Will the plan that the Department of Veterans Affairs announced last week cleanup a backlog of hundreds of thousands of veterans healthcare applications, or is it simply a public relations effort meant to brush under the rug a problem that has dogged the national enrollment office in Atlanta for years?
For his part, Davis remains skeptical and critical about the agency’s plan, which he told the AJC isn’t going far enough to fix systemic problems that continue to delay access to care for veterans who earned benefits. Davis said the agency is more focused on getting positive press for the news period leading up to Memorial Day and has put out press releases claiming success before actually doing the work.
“VA is not doing everything it could to fix this problem,” said Davis, a program specialist at the HEC in Atlanta. “VA leadership doesn’t want to go to the American people and say we screwed hundreds of thousands of veterans.”
Officials whitewashed backlog
Based in a nondescript office building off I-85 in DeKalb County, the Health Eligibility Center oversees the healthcare enrollment system for millions of veterans across the country. Mismanagement and problems at the agency first came to public attention in a June 2014 article that quoted Davis, who two weeks later was called to testify before a congressional oversight committee that reviews veterans issues.
A series of stories that year in the AJC exposed widespread problems with the enrollment system that had been exacerbated by breakdowns in a new online enrollment process rolled out by VA in 2010. The backlog steadily grew over the past decade, ballooning to more than 800,000 veterans applications by 2014. More than 200,000 veterans on the list are now deceased, raising the spectre that some died while waiting to gain access to the VA’s healthcare system.
Officials who oversaw the HEC in 2014 tried to downplay the problem and put out a misleading blog post and inaccurate statements to veterans groups, the public and Congress. At one point, they claimed the backlog was less than 300,000 veterans applications, despite internal documents obtained from Davis that showed those statements to be false.
A VA inspector general’s report last September confirmed many of the AJC’s findings and noted that it had substantiated whistleblower’s claims about the problems with the enrollment system. In the past year, the leadership at the HEC has been overhauled and Eitutis was brought in fix the center’s problems.
The VA’s announcement last week confirmed that 545,000 living veterans have pending applications and 288,000 veterans on the list are deceased. The agency outlined a six-point plan to fix the list and correct the enrollment process.
‘We did not do our job’
The HEC will soon begin contacting the 545,000 living veterans on the list to determine if they want to complete their enrollment. If so, they will have a year to complete their applications before they are moved from the pending list.
The agency also plans to determine which of the deceased veterans on the list were eligible for enrollment; those families could receive compensation or some other restitution. The plan also calls for the VA’s 152 medical centers to process applications from the list in their area.
The agency is creating a new online application process to improve customer service and will create a call center to help resolve veteran applications that end up in a pending status. The agency is also creating an auditing service to help gauge the efficiency of its enrollment system for veterans.
“We did not do our job,” Eitutis said. “I can tell you emphatically that is has taken us too long to get to this point. It is the responsibility of the agency to be timely and accurate with what we do with enrollment applications and we have not done that. The six solutions that were are putting in place are going to guarantee that we have a sustainable process going into the future.”
Rep. Jeff Miller, chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, who asked the inspector general to investigate the HEC after Davis went public in 2014, said he’s pleased the agency is taking steps to improve enrollment, but expressed concern that those who oversaw the HEC let the problem fester for years.
“It’s incumbent upon the department to outline the steps it is taking to hold those responsible accountable and detail precisely how many of the 288,000 pending records were for eligible veterans who needed care but didn’t receive it,” Miller said in a statement last week.
Davis said Eitutis’ apology and other outreach he has received from senior leaders at the VA are hollow gestures unless the system actually gets fixed for veterans. He said he and others at the HEC still have concerns that the steps being taken are old ideas that are simply being recycled.
“They need a massive campaign to inform veterans about what’s going on with the enrollment process,” he said. “As long as they keep it a secret they can ride out until the end of the year and pass it on to the next administration.”