(This story was updated at 7:45 p.m. ET.)
The Veterans Health Administration's Health Eligibility Center is not effectively managing essential data, causing a large backlog of applications and other problems with getting veterans healthcare, according to a report released Wednesday by the VA's Office of the Inspector General (PDF).
As of about a year ago, the VHA's enrollment system had about 867,000 records coded as "pending." About 35% of them were for veterans OIG investigators found to be deceased according Social Security data. "However, due to the data limitations, we could not reliably determine how many records were associated with actual applications for enrollment," investigators wrote in the report.
The report also substantiated claims that more than 10,000 records were deleted and investigators could not rule out data manipulation.
Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Committee of Veterans Affairs, requested the report to verify the claims of a whistle-blower.
The OIG recommended a senior executive be assigned to implement a multiyear plan to correct data integrity issues and identify veterans who still have pending applications. The report also notes that the VHA and Office of Information and Technology should determine whether administrative action should be taken against any of their senior officials.
The VHA and OIT submitted correction plans that include software changes, alterations in how the pending status of an application can be changed and creating working groups to recommend other improvements
“We regret the inconvenience and potential hardship place(d) on applicants for health care and we are working hard to restore Veterans' confidence and trust in VA's systems and staff. 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.” VA Undersecretary of Health Dr. David Shulkin wrote in his response.
The report comes as the VA is still trying to recover from a scandal over excessive wait times for health appointments and evidence of staffers altering records to hide the problem. In July, lawmakers railed on VA leadership when they filled a VA budget gap by approving a last-minute reallocation of $3.5 billion to the VA's Choice program, which allows veterans to visit local doctors. Miller said the fiscal issue represented a management problem.
The VA said in a statement that the department "continues the efforts outlined in previous blogs and public responses to contact Veterans with a record in a pending status (irrespective of whether an application date is present) to determine if they desired to enroll in VA healthcare." As of June 30, the VA had contacted about 300,000 veterans by mail to establish eligibility and received 36,749 responses and enrolled 34,517 veterans, according to the statement.
Roscoe Butler, deputy director of The American Legion's veterans affairs and rehabilitation division, said he was not surprised the claims were substantiated and they show that paperwork and bureaucracy is keeping some veterans from health care.
When an enrollment decision is put off, the veteran can't move forward with efforts to get care. At least when enrollment is denied that action can be appealed, he said.
“That decision needs to be made immediately and those veterans need to be afforded due process,” Butler said.
The failures do not appear to be purposeful but rather the result of bad system-design and lack of attention to detail. Changes need to be made but the VA is still the best system for treating veterans, he said.
“I think that their enrollment system needs to be overhauled,” Butler said. “It needs to be modernized with current technology.”
Correction, Sept. 2, 2015:
This story and headline were updated to reflect that the enrollment records coded as pending in the VA data do not necessarily indicate veterans seeking care.