The Veterans Affairs Department has figured out how to fix a backlog of health care applications that dates back at least four years: Enforce a law requiring veterans to furnish the necessary paperwork, or the applications will be closed.
By the end of 2016, the military health system may look completely different. Or it may resemble the current structure with tweaks hardly noticeable to military patients.
Photo Credit: Air Force
Kelvin Conyers, a former Army medic, earned his licensed practical nurse degree from Savannah Technical College.
Photo Credit: Stephen B. Morton for Savannah Technical College
In this photo taken Thursday, April 2, 2015, people line up to get prescriptions filled at the pharmacy in the Sacramento Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Rancho Cordova, Calif. The health care applications of more than a half-million veterans have been languishing in pending status, according to the VA.
Photo Credit: Rich Pedroncelli/AP
In a press release issued on Monday, VA officials said the department will "extend the healthcare enrollment application for one year" to 545,000 veterans who have applied for VA health care to allow time for VA to contact them and for the veterans to furnish the required information.
By law, VA must notify applicants with incomplete applications, and if the veteran receives the notice but does not provide the information, the department closes the request.
In the past, the VA's Health Eligibility Center has not tracked the status or timing of applications, resulting in an applications backlog that includes the applications of 545,000 living veterans and 245,000 deceased veterans.
"What happened is there had been a lot of deferred maintenance on this system ... and the HEC did not have the proper leadership making sure these records were being actively case-managed," said VA acting director for member services Matthew Eitutis.
According to VA, officials will reach out by mail and phone to all veterans on the pending list, as it has for 30,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who were mistakenly on that list.
These veterans automatically are entitled to health care for five years following their transition to the civilian community, but in many cases, the VA's software system mistakenly labeled their applications as needing signatures or income information.
"Fixing the veterans enrollment system is a top priority for VA," VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson said in the release. "This is an important step forward to regain veterans' trust and improve access to care as we continue the 'MyVA' Transformation."
The VA inspector general in September found extensive problems with the VA's health applications, including evidence that employees lost 10,000 applications and that more than 245,000 veterans on the pending list actually were deceased.
Scott Davis, a VA whistleblower who brought the issued to light, said on Monday the new effort to contact veterans is doomed, largely because VA will rely on an existing, outdated address and phone database.
"They are using the same address information they've had for years that they've acknowledged has bad addresses," Davis said.
He added that the decision to close the applications after a year is unfair to veterans.
"It's irresponsible to just drop these veterans. It's often not their fault. We've done reviews of the system and have found a high number of the incomplete applications were actually mistakes on the side of the VA," Davis said.
Eitutis said VA will drop a requirement that applications contain a hand-written signature and is checking for other errors created by the center's software system.
He added that of the 31,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veteran applications reviewed, 5,500 are now enrolled in VA health care.
Applying a similar percentage of veterans — nearly 20 percent — to the 545,000 veterans on the pending list, VA could be looking at enrolling nearly 110,000 veterans in VA health care in the coming year.
"We believe there are thousands that we don't have a signed application for that we are going to enroll in the coming months," Eitutis said.
House Veterans Affairs Committee chairman Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., said in a statement Monday that he was glad VA is addressing the problems but was "baffled" the department took so long.
"Whistleblowers have been complaining about this issue and others at the department's Health Eligibility Center for years, and at [the committee's] request VA's inspector general confirmed a huge backlog of pending health care applications in September of 2015," Miller said.
In addition to sending letters to veterans on the pending list, the department plans to provide the names of veterans who have applied to VA medical centers across the country for VA staff to call them.
Patricia Kime covers veterans and military health care and medicine for Military Times. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Patricia Kime is a senior writer covering military and veterans health care, medicine and personnel issues.