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Nearly 1 million veterans have pending applications for health care at VA — and a third may already be dead

Veteran Roy Wiltz waits to be picked up outside the Atlanta VA Medical Center after a medical appointment on May 24, 2013.  (AP Photo/David Goldman, File)

Despite promises for widespread reform, nearly 900,000 military veterans have pending applications to access health care from the Department of Veterans Affairs, the department’s inspector general said Wednesday in a scathing report which recommended a total overhaul of their record-keeping system that could take years.

One-third of those veterans are thought to be dead, but problems with the data makes it tough to know how many former troops were still struggling to get care, the report says. VA has said it has no way to purge the list of dead applicants.

Over half the applications listed as “pending,” as of last year do not even say when the applications were dated, and the Associated Press reported on Wednesday that investigators “could not reliably determine how many records were associated with actual applications for enrollment” in VA health care, the report said.

“Data limitations” prevent investigators from determining how many now-deceased veterans applied for health-care benefits or when.

Linda Halliday, the VA’s acting inspector general, told the AP that the agency’s Health Eligibility Center “has not effectively managed its business processes to ensure the consistent creation and maintenance of essential data.”

The report also says VA workers incorrectly marked thousands of unprocessed health-care applications as completed. They may have deleted 10,000 or more electronic “transactions” over the past five years.

Whistleblowers have been warning that more than 200,000 veterans with pending applications for VA health care were likely deceased. The inspector general’s report substantiated those claims.

Scott Davis, a whistleblower who has long been sounding the alarm on the problems is a program specialist at the VA enrollment center in Atlanta. He called the report “a step in the right direction,” and said “reports like these will force the VA to change their culture.”

He said he was “cautiously optimistic,” but added that VA leaders responsible for problems needed to be held accountable. “The VA’s past practice of deferring to the same management officials who caused the problem… is both illogical and insulting to the veteran community.”

Davis said he told VA that 34,000 men and women who served in Iraq and Afghanistan are losing their guaranteed five-year eligibility for VA service due to “systematic obstacles.”

He said that combat veterans are not required to verify their income when applying for VA benefits. But the enrollment applications of 34,000 such veterans were delayed when the VA system classified them as pending.

VA spokeswoman Walinda West said Wednesday that VA acknowledged publicly last year that the enrollment system management and data integrity and quality “are in need of significant improvement. VA realizes the issues surrounding the enrollment process are confusing to Veterans and our stakeholders.”

Sens. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.,) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), chairman and senior Democrat of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said in a joint statement that the report put a spotlight on “both a significant failure” by leaders at the Health Eligibility Center and “deficient oversight by the VA central office” in Washington.

They asked VA to implement the report’s recommendations quickly. “Ensure that this level of blatant mismanagement does not happen again,” their statement said.

As of June 30, VA has contacted 302,045 veterans by mail, asking them to submit required documents to establish eligibility, West said. To date, VA has received 36,749 responses and enrolled 34,517 veterans, and outreach efforts are continuing, she said.

“As we continue our work to contact veterans, our focus remains on improving the enrollment system to better serve veterans,” West said. “We will work diligently to address the issues their report raised to continue to improve the enrollment system to better serve Veterans.”