U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., chairs the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. CURTIS COMPTON /CCOMPTON@AJC.COM

Isakson tells VA to fix enrollment flaws at Atlanta center

Bipartisan members of Congress, including Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., urged VA Secretary David Shulkin Tuesday to fix breakdowns at a VA enrollment center in Atlanta that is delaying benefits to thousands of veterans across the country.

Isakson and other Congressional leaders who oversee veterans issues wrote a March 3 letter to Shulkin, released Tuesday, that calls on him to correct the failure of the Health Eligibility Center (HEC) in DeKalb County to resolve a backlog of hundreds of thousands of health care applications.

VA leaders last year said they had a plan to contact veterans on the backlog and enroll them for health care benefits or clear their applications from the list. But a coding mistake reported by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in February led to veterans getting the wrong letters and further delayed a fix for potentially hundreds of thousands of applications.

“Given the enormity of the impact on veterans, we urge you to take additional steps to further ensure veterans receive every opportunity to complete their applications and that those applications are not improperly closed due to VA error,” the letter from the senators and congressmen said.

James Hutton, a VA spokesman, said Shulkin would not be available for an interview. Hutton said the VA on Monday responded to Isakson’s letter, but the VA would not make that response available to the AJC.

A statement said the agency conducted a review in December and found the letters sent to veterans were “reasonable and appropriate.”

“We found there was no need to send correction letters,” the statement issued by Hutton said.

The HEC operates in an office off Clairmont Road near I-85. It oversees health care enrollment for more than 150 VA hospitals across the country, serving some 8.76 million veterans. The backlog was  first reported in the AJC in 2014 based largely on whistleblower allegations. A congressional hearing and inspector general’s investigation later confirmed many of the newspaper’s findings.

The backlog involves health care applications of more than 800,000 veterans, but more than 300,000 are from veterans who died while their applications were pending. Some 545,000 veterans on the list are living, but their applications are stuck limbo on the pending list. A flawed roll-out of an online application several years ago compounded the problem.

Enrollment is a prerequisite for accessing full VA health services.

The VA’s Health Eligibility Center in Atlanta has had numerous problems with a backlog of applications from veterans. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Ongoing enrollment problems

VA leaders for years had tried to downplay the backlog and even misled the public and veterans about the issue.

Last year, Matt Eitutis, a senior VA official who oversees the enrollment system, apologized about the breakdown and vowed to fix it through a mailing campaign that would contact veterans and try to enroll them. If they didn’t respond or chose not to enroll, the VA would remove their names from the list.

But a computer glitch led to a mix-up and some of the hundreds of thousands on the mailing list received letters with incorrect or misleading information. The matter was serious enough that the VA self-reported the issue to the inspector general’s office in December.

“We are distressed by continued reports of problems that may result in a delay in enrollment and subsequently health care, and a less than optimal first VA health care experience,” said the letter by Isakson, who chairs the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs, and Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, the ranking Democrat on the committee, and the two ranking members on the veterans oversight committee in the House.

VA was scheduled to begin purging applications from the backlog this month if veterans had not responded to the VA mailing campaign, which started in March 2016. Isakson asked Shulkin to delay purging effected veterans for another year until more outreach can be completed.

Scott Davis, an employee at the VA Health Eligibility Center, blew the whistle on problems with the center’s backlog of health care eligibility applications. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Step in ‘right direction,’ says whistleblower

Whistleblower Scott Davis, who testified before Congress about the backlog in 2014, sent a letter to President Donald Trump Feb. 21 and copied Shulkin, Isakson’s office and others in Congress about the upcoming purge of records.

The flawed notification letters are the latest in a long list of problems that have harmed veterans and prevented them from getting access to health benefits they earned, he said.

He said senior VA officials have continued to downplay the backlog, and said the plan to purge the records was intended to make it go away without actually fixing the underlying problems in the enrollment system.

“They tried to bury this as soon as possible before anyone could start asking questions in the veteran community,” Davis said.

He said Isakson’s actions calling for Shulkin to delay the purging is critical because widespread purging of records would set a bad precedent across the VA system.

“This is a huge step in the right direction to protect veterans and ensure they get the health care benefits they deserve,” said Davis.

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