The VA’s national health care enrollment office off Clairmont Road is far from Washington’s corridors of power, but as ousted VA Secretary David Shulkin leaves the turmoil at the office he promised to fix remains unresolved.
President Donald Trump fired the embattled secretary this week, announcing the the decision on Wednesday via Twitter. Shulkin in recent months had been engulfed by a travel expense scandal and questions about use of his VA security detail.
But long before those problems surfaced, Shulkin came to Atlanta in 2015 as VA undersecretary for health care and promised to fix a broken health care enrollment system that had left 800,000 veterans applications backlogged.
The backlog included 300,000 veterans who were deceased. Trump cited the backlog during his 2016 campaign as a prime example of the VA’s dysfunction.
Shulkin's visit to the VA Health Eligibility Center in August 2015 came just before a scathing inspector general's report that outlined problems with the health care enrollment system first identified by the AJC in a 2014 investigation.
"He didn't fix any of the issues in the pending backlog" said Scott Davis, a VA whistleblower who works at the Atlanta-based office that oversees enrollment for millions of veterans across the country. "The pending backlog is now higher than when he came here."
Davis said those in limbo include recent combat veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan who have been erroneously placed on the pending list based on computer errors in the enrollment system. In December alone, Davis said, 201,000 vets were added to the list.
Last year, after Trump had promoted Shulkin to Secretary, he faced another scathing audit that criticized the VA for overseeing a health care enrollment process in disarray across the country. Shulkin again committed to fixing the system.
"That problem also has not been fixed," said Davis.
VA spokesman Curt Cashour said: “Dr. Shulkin’s departure has no bearing on the work being performed or the progress that continues within the Health Eligibility Center.”
One of Shulkin's strongest supporters in Congress was Georgia Sen. Johnny Isakson, who chairs the Senate Committee on Veteran's Affairs. But even Isakson had grown frustrated by the persistent enrollment system problems and sent a letter to Shulkin last March urging him to address them.
Davis, who testified before Congress in 2014 when the enrollment problems first became public, said he met with Isakson's staff last week to go over the unresolved issues. He said he was encouraged by their desire to fix the problems.
But, he said, the new secretary will have to hold leaders responsible for the enrollment mess accountable if anything is going to change.
"The problems with VA’s health care system will persist unless the new secretary brings in new leadership for VA," Davis said.