- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 2, 2015

More than 300,000 dead veterans are still listed in VA computers as actively trying to sign up for health care — part of a massive 860,000 benefit application backlog that hasn’t been cleared up, according to an audit Wednesday that portrayed a department struggling with the basics of tracking benefits.

Veterans Affairs workers appear to have deleted another 10,000 benefit applications without ever processing them, and 13 percent on the rolls have been awaiting a decision for more than five years, the department’s inspector general said.

Many of those have died, but the VA never went back to delete their names, leaving a system so messy that the department can’t properly triage cases and figure out who needs help the most urgently, investigators said.

“Overstated pending enrollment records create unnecessary difficulty and confusion in identifying and assisting veterans with the most urgent need for health care enrollment,” the investigators said in the report. “Additionally, outreach efforts to obtain additional information for enrollment eligibility may have been frustrating and upsetting to family members of deceased veterans.”

More than a year after the veterans wait-list scandal broke, the Department of Veterans Affairs continues to struggle with its operations.

The inspector general said the Veterans Health Administration did not have a requirement for how quickly applications should be processed, leaving tens of thousands of them waiting for years.

Investigators said leaving the dead veterans on the list also raises the chance of identity fraud, with someone using a dead beneficiary’s name to get “unauthorized” access to health care.

The VHA’s system was so deficient that the inspector general couldn’t figure out how many of the 860,000 pending records were for health care benefits.

The system was set up in 2009 and incorporated all existing records at that time, but workers never checked to make sure those records were still active — putting dead veterans on the rolls. In one case, a veteran who died in 1993 still has a pending claim from that 2009 transition.

The system also allowed employees to open records without all of the necessary information if the patient did not have it on hand. But if that information was never provided, then the claims sat there unprocessed.

Even efforts to clean up the system were bungled, the report said. That was when the 10,000 names may have been deleted without ever processing those applications. Investigators said the records were so bad that they couldn’t even determine whether fraud was involved.

Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Johnny Isakson, Georgia Republican, and Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, the ranking Democrat on the committee, said the report raised troubling questions about the VHA and about the main department leadership that failed to keep tabs on the agency.

“The findings in the Office of the Inspector General’s report point to both a significant failure on behalf of past leadership at the Health Eligibility Center and deficient oversight by the VA central office,” they said in a joint statement. “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.”

Those recommendations included urging the VHA to impose a limit on how long applications can be pending before the agency must decide on them, and naming a top official in charge of cleaning things up. The inspector general also said the VHA should come up with ways of verifying when people in its system have died, and must figure out how to keep applications of living veterans from being deleted before they are processed.

The VA did not respond to requests for comment, but in an official response to the report, Undersecretary for Health David Shulkin, agreed with all recommendations and said he would hurry to try to fix the problems and treat them “with the utmost seriousness.”

“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,” he 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.”

The VA is still reeling from last year’s wait-list scandal, which was exposed after a whistleblower said dozens of veterans died while waiting for appointments at the Phoenix VA hospital. The veterans had been shunted onto secret waiting lists and had appointments canceled so VA officials could meet numerical goals for clearing appointments, according to a follow-up investigation that found the problems extended to clinics around the country.

President Obama ousted the VA secretary and installed Robert McDonald. Congress passed legislation giving the new leadership more flexibility to fire badly performing executives.

On Tuesday, Mr. McDonald fired back at Congress for punishing the scandal-ridden agency by cutting the president’s proposed funding. In remarks to the American Legion’s annual convention, he accused lawmakers of using the VA to score political points, making it a place where “the needs of veterans are secondary to ideology,” Mr. McDonald said at a veterans convention.

Mr. McDonald told the crowd of veterans that despite getting the disability claims backlog under 100,000 unprocessed claims last month and reducing wait times for veterans needing appointments, Congress has been punishing the scandal-ridden agency by cutting the president’s proposed funding.

He said proposed budgetary cuts could lead to 70,000 fewer veterans receiving care and funding elimination for four hospital construction projects and six new cemetery projects.

He also pushed the point that while Congress has granted the VA minimal budgetary flexibility, allowing it to transfer funds to different accounts that have greater spending needs, what flexibility it has now will expire Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year.

Several presidential candidates, most notably Republican Ben Carson, has called for the VA to be privatized. Mr. McDonald had strong words for those in Washington who have suggested that, or said that the Choice Act, a program allowing veterans to seek private health care on the VA’s dime if they don’t have access to an agency clinic, should be phased out.

• Anjali Shastry can be reached at ashastry@washingtontimes.com.

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