OIG: 300,000 vets died waiting for care

By Jack McCarthy
02:14 PM

More than 300,000 veterans may have died while awaiting care from Veterans Health Administration's (VHA) Health Eligibility Centers (HEC), according to a report.

Released Wednesday by the Department of Veterans Affairs Office of Inspector General, the report said the VHA's system for tracking veterans' applications for health care is so unreliable that VA officials are not sure how many former troops still desire care, or whether they are even still alive.

"As of September 2014, more than 307,000 pending ES (enrollment system) records, or about 35 percent of all pending records, were for individuals reported as deceased by the Social Security Administration," the report said. "However, due to data limitations, we could not determine specifically how many pending ES records represent veterans who applied for health care benefits. These conditions occurred because the enrollment program did not effectively define, collect, and manage enrollment data. In addition, VHA lacked adequate procedures to identify date of death information and implement necessary updates to the individual's status."

The report also found that employees incorrectly marked unprocessed applications as completed and possibly deleted 10,000 or more transactions from the Workload Reporting and Productivity (WRAP) tool over the past 5 years. "While the HEC often deleted transactions for legitimate purposes, such as the removal of duplicate transactions, information security deficiencies within WRAP limited our ability to review some issues fully and rule out manipulation of data," the report said.

In addition, 11,000 applications and 28,000 related transactions, some as old as September 2012, have not been processed.

What's more, at least 477,000 of the pending records did not have application dates, which makes the ES unreliable for monitoring timeliness or determining if a record represents a veteran's intent to apply for VA health care, the report said.

Most of the pending records have been inactive for years because the VHA's chief business office (CBO) did not set limits on how long ES records could remain in a pending status before reaching a final determination, the report said.

The report issued a call for massive change at the VHA.

"CBO has not effectively managed its business processes to ensure the consistent creation and maintenance of essential data," the report said. "Due to the amount and age of the ES data, as well as lead times required to develop and implement software solutions, a multi-year project management plan is needed to address the accuracy of pending ES records and improve the usefulness of ES data."

"The plan should address the role of enrollment coordinators in the field, as well as requirements for OI&T to develop and implement additional technology solutions," the report added. "In addition, action is needed to ensure the reliability of ES data currently being entered."

The VHA is the arm of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) that implements the medical assistance program of the VA through the administration and operation of numerous VA Medical Centers (VAMC), Outpatient Clinics (OPC), Community Based Outpatient Clinics (CBOC), and VA Community Living Centers (VA Nursing Home) Programs.

The House Veterans' Affairs Committee requested the investigation of the VHA in July.
U.S. Senators Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., chairman and ranking member of the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs, respectively, released a statement on report.

They said the findings "point to both a significant failure on behalf of past leadership at the Health Eligibility Center and deficient oversight by the VA central office. We urge the VA to implement the inspector general's recommendations quickly to improve record keeping at the VA and ensure that this level of blatant mismanagement does not happen again." 

Undersecretary for Health David Shulkin said he agreed with all recommendations and promised prompt action to fix the problems and treat them "with the utmost seriousness," according to The Washington Times.

"We regret the inconvenience and potential hardship placed on applicants for health care and we are working hard to restore Veterans' confidence and trust in VA's systems and staff," Shulkin wrote. "We have and will continue to take timely and appropriate steps to improve our services to ensure we meet the expectations of those whom we have the honor of serving."