A well-known whistleblower in the Department of Veterans Affairs warned Wednesday that the VA appears to be getting ready to close tens of thousands of incomplete healthcare applications, even though it's been clear for more than a year that the VA was failing to give veterans a chance to complete these applications.
Scott Davis is a public affairs officer for the VA's Member Services in Atlanta who has testified before Congress about problems within the VA.
In an open letter to VA Secretary David Shulkin, Davis said the VA is preparing to send out thousands of letters notifying veterans that their incomplete applications are being closed.
He told the Washington Examiner that he has seen emails from a federal contractor who asked VA officials to send over proofs for "notification of closed application" letters, which Davis said is a sign the VA is preparing to close out applications that have been held in limbo for more than a year now.
In his letter to Shulkin, Davis said that's a problem because the VA has promised to do nothing until a full study is completed on how effective the VA is at guiding veterans through the application process.
"It is my duty as the Public Affairs Officer and Content Manager for VHA Member Services to inform your office that Notification of Closed Application letters have been created by VHA to send to the nearly 500,000 Veterans who were part of the failed Pending Letter notification campaign that resulted in over 200,000 letters not being mailed to Veterans and/ or returned by the Post Office," he wrote.
The VA said in a statement late Wednesday afternoon that it has no plans to move quickly to close down pending applications to receive healthcare coverage from the agency.
"VA has closed no legacy pending applications within the Veterans Health Administration enrollment system due to the ongoing Inspector General review," VA spokesman Curt Cashour said in a statement to the Washington Examiner. "Also, VA will close no legacy pending applications until we have reasonable assurance that all applications have been fully researched and resolved. Even then, VA will notify all veterans at least 30 days before closing an incomplete enrollment application and will remind them to complete their application and instruct them how to apply for enrollment in VA health care in the future."
Davis's letter reflects a longstanding worry that the VA was mishandling applications. In March 2016, during the Obama administration, the VA started mailing nearly half a million letters to veterans asking for more information about their application. But it soon became clear within the VA that nearly half of these — almost 230,000 letters — never reached the intended veteran, due to bad addresses, software, and other problems.
At the end of 2016, a month before President Trump took office, the VA realized that most of the letters that went out were asking the wrong question. They either said the veteran needed to provide means testing information when it meant to ask for military information, or vice versa.
Further, audio leaked out in April in which a senior VA employee could be heard saying in 2016 that he was instructed not to help hospitals as they try to assist veterans seeking healthcare at the VA.
In light of those problems, the VA said this year it would wait for a final report about the VA's mailing services from its Office of Inspector General before taking any next steps. Shulkin himself said nothing would happen until the OIG report is out, in a letter to House Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Phil Roe, R-Tenn.
"Once their review is complete, we will be able to determine if new letters are needed," he wrote then. Some who have followed the issue said there are no signs the VA is about to close out the veterans' applications, because the final report is not out yet.
But an early draft of the report has been circulating that indicates the VA still has many problems to fix in the areas of application processing. Among other things, it said the VA still lacks standards and oversight when it comes to followup with veterans, and that the VA is improperly shifting the burden to veterans to make sure their applications are correct.
"Ineffective governance of the health care enrollment program resulted in activities that were not veteran-centric and did not provide sufficient service to those seeking access to health care," the draft OIG "statement of findings" said. (See document below.)
Davis said that the VA's long history of problems is why it shouldn't be making any moves to mail out final letters to veterans.
"Based on the findings in the OIG report it is highly unlikely that the VA medical center staff could have adequately reviewed 500,000 pending applications ... because they did not have standard policies or procedures, adequate training nor resources in place to audit and/or review 500,000 applications in addition to their enrollment workload during this period," he wrote.
Davis also called on Shulkin to step in and make sure the VA takes steps to ensure the letters aren't released.
"Dr. Shulkin, VA has to reject the past practices of holding Veterans accountable for administrative errors made by VHA management officials," he wrote. "This is an opportunity for VA to change course and move forward with the reforms you and the president highlight in your discussions with the Veteran community."