Veterans

VA employees disciplined in health enrollment scandal

Seven Veterans Affairs employees, including two senior executives, face disciplinary action for their involvement in a scandal surrounding the department's health care enrollment system, which last year was found to contain the names of 300,000 deceased veterans.

VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson said Friday the employees, from the VA's Health Eligibility Center in Atlanta, Georgia, and VA Member Services, and two Veterans Health Administration senior executives with "responsibility for enrollment and eligibility programs," have received disciplinary notices.

They have 30 days to respond and remain at work while the process unfolds, Gibson added.

"This is a process that has not served veterans well. It's been broken for a long time," Gibson said. "I have not seen the evidence, but my presumption is the charges are associated with management negligence and failure to take appropriate action."

The VA Office of Inspector General last year found that the VA's health enrollment system contained 847,882 pending applications, some dating back 20 years, and more than 300,000 from veterans who had since died.

The investigation also found that roughly 10,000 applications may have been deleted from the system and veterans not notified of the error.

VA has been under fire for the past year over its handling of holding employees accountable for mistakes and misconduct. Congress in 2014 passed legislation that allowed VA to accelerate the disciplinary process but said VA officials have been slow to react or to terminate employees when appropriate.

In December, Gibson said VA was making its own changes to the process, no longer waiting for outside investigations to be completed before moving ahead with punishment and stopping placing employees on paid leave during disciplinary investigations.

Regarding the actions proposed against employees overseeing the health enrollment system, Gibson said he would not "get into specifics," but would announce any "conclusive actions," when they are done.

Since December, VA has been chipping away at the health applications backlog, starting with 34,000 combat veterans who should have automatically qualified for health care but wound up in the application system accidentally.

According to Gibson, VA has since enrolled 6,500 of those veterans and continues to work to contact the remaining.

VA also has started to reach out to the remaining 500,000 veterans in the system, having enrolled 11,000 veterans in the past two weeks and reaching a decision on care for another 10,000 former service members.

VA in March announced that post 9/11 combat veterans who have applied for health care but have not heard from the department could enroll by phone.

On Friday, Gibson said starting on Memorial Day, veterans will be able to apply for health care online, through a new portal, www.vets.gov. VA will abolish a requirement that all veterans provide a signed application for health care on July 5, he added.

Patricia Kime covers military and veterans health care and medicine for Military Times. She can be reached at pkime@militarytimes.com

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