The Veterans Affairs Department's system for tracking veterans' applications for health care is so unreliable that it's impossible for VA officials to know how many former troops still want care — or even if they are still alive, according to a new report.
Investigating allegations made by a whistleblower in July that nearly a third of 847,882 veterans listed in the Veterans Health Administration enrollment system died while waiting for care, the VA Inspector General confirmed with the Social Security Administration that 307,000 former troops on the list are in fact deceased.
But investigators also found that the VA system cannot discern how many records in the system are associated with actual applications for health care, and more than half the records did not contain an associated date of application.
Investigators also found that employees incorrectly marked unprocessed applications as completed and may have deleted as many as 10,000 applications during the past five years
The system also shows a backlog of waiting patients. According to the IG report, 11,000 applications and 28,000 related transactions, some as old as September 2012, have not been processed.
The IG said the database, which includes the names of all VA patients as well as applicants whose military service needed to be confirmed, is inadequate for its intended task — to track progress of applications for medical care at VA.
"Enrollment program data were generally unreliable for monitoring, reporting on the status of health care enrollments and making decisions regarding overall processing timeliness, in spite of the costs to collect the data and maintain the enrollment system," inspectors wrote in the report, "Review of Alleged Mismanagement at the Health Eligibility Center."
The House Veterans' Affairs Committee asked for the investigation following a report on the backlog problem published in July by the Huffington Post.
Following that article, VA officials explained they cannot expunge deceased veterans from its eligibility system because under department policy, only death notices from three sources — death certificates, a record of a death at a VA facility or a notification from the National Cemetery Administration — are considered sufficient verification.
Many of the death notifications of veterans were from sources including the Social Security Administration, Medicare, the Defense Department and other government entities that the VA does not accept as proof of death.
The VA IG recommended several fixes, including suggestions that VA senior leaders develop and implement a plan to better monitor the data and improve the system's accuracy, and revise policies to address the department's record-keeping shortcomings.
For whistleblower and VA employee Scott Davis, the new IG report vindicates his decision to come forward with the issue.
Davis, who still works at VA but says he has been assigned a lesser job in a secluded office since raising the issue with Congress and the media, said Wednesday that he plans to send VA senior leaders and Congress his own set of recommendations.
They include bringing in an outside board to examine the databases and oversee improvements, and for VA to reinvigorate its commitment to help veteran patients and hold employees accountable.
"I'm hoping they'll take a look at my recommendations," Davis said. "Ultimately, my goal was to help. I didn't do this, as some people have accused, to make the VA look bad. I did it to fix the problem."
VA officials said Wednesday that they plan to "work diligently to address the issues in the report."
"The report discusses issues VA acknowledged publicly last year that our enrollment system management and data integrity and quality are in need of significant improvement," department spokeswoman Walinda West said. "VA realizes the issues surrounding the enrollment process are confusing to veterans and our stakeholders."
As of June 30, VA has sent letters to more than 300,000 veterans asking them to submit documents required as part of the application process to determine eligibility, West said, adding that the department has received 36,749 responses and enrolled 34,517 veterans as a result.