Caring for our nation’s Veterans is the highest honor and privilege for the men and women who serve them at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Our mission is to provide timely access to earned health care and benefits for millions of Veterans. That is a responsibility that we do not take lightly.
Over the past several months, it has become clear that we have fallen short when it comes to timely access to care. Today, we are working hard with Veterans Service Organizations, Congress and others to take corrective actions, accelerate access and begin to rebuild trust with the Veterans who entrust us with their care. A third of VA’s employees are Veterans themselves and they come to work each day focused on making a difference.
It is important that we openly and willingly discuss our mistakes and how we intend to improve. As we acknowledge areas where more work is needed, we also need to set the record straight when our work is unfairly mischaracterized.
One such story alleged VA mishandled enrollment applications. While we have worked to make the enrollment process less complicated, it is an area VA has identified for improvement. As we move forward, our focus remains on enhancing the enrollment system to better serve Veterans.
However, the media report on this issue failed to include key facts and information provided by VA, which resulted in a misleading portrayal of VA’s work in this important area. Veterans and the public deserve to have a complete set of facts presented.
Since 1998, over 8.9 million Veterans have enrolled in our health care system. Approximately 2% of Veterans’ applications received were found to be incomplete. In each of these cases, we have worked closely with the Veteran to quickly notify them of the required information in order to complete their applications so that we may determine their eligibility to begin receiving care.
It is also important to note that there are situations in which a Veteran’s record transfers to our enrollment system even though the applicant does not intend to apply for health care, for example, Veterans applying for State Home Benefits. Current regulatory guidelines prohibit us from removing these records, resulting in VA leaving them in a pending status. We are working to resolve this situation so that our system will reflect only those Veterans who truly intend to apply for care and benefits, such as a Veteran who wishes to receive medical care for a service connected disability.
Enrollment applications can be processed by local VA medical centers or the VA Health Eligibility Center (HEC) in Atlanta, Georgia. In July 2014, the HEC processed paper enrollment applications within 5 business days nearly 80 percent of the time, and online applications were processed within 5 business days 67 percent of the time. In the fall of 2014, we are planning to implement additional changes which will make applying for care online faster and easier for Veterans.
Some key facts in response to recent allegations:
Allegation: The backlog of applications for care with pending status is 848,699.
VA Fact: HEC records show 216,736 true applications for care in a pending status.
- A May 15, 2014 analysis of 896,237 pending enrollment records, found that only 216,736 records had an application date; an indicator that the Veteran applied for enrollment in VA’s health care system.
- Of the true applications in pending status, 51% (110,571) require the Veteran’s submission of personal financial information and 49% (106,165) require the Veteran to provide evidence of qualifying military service in order to determine enrollment eligibility. We have been reaching out to these Veterans to let them know the additional information needed so that we may complete their application.
- These pending applications are not backlogged as VA has processed these records to their fullest capability. (VA currently has no legal authority to move records from a pending status after outreach has occurred and no response is provided by the Veteran.)
- VA has made significant progress in contacting those applicants identified as having a record in a pending status. In fact, VA contacted 213,354 Veterans by mail asking them to submit required documents to establish eligibility. To date, VA has received 22,769 responses and enrolled 15,316 Veterans, and outreach efforts are continuing.
Allegation: As many as 47,786 Veterans with pending applications for care died because they failed to gain access to VA health care.
VA Fact: On August 7, the HEC concluded an analysis of 1,843 pending records. We learned that the majority of records associated with deceased Veterans (75%) were for Veterans who died who were not applying for health care benefits.
Allegation: The online application rolled out with design flaws and didn’t allow Veterans to upload their discharge papers electronically, usually a DD-214 form.
VA Fact: On the contrary, the online system is currently designed to be less burdensome by not requiring Veterans to submit documents, such as the DD 214 (the military’s Certificate of Release or Discharge from Active Duty), when VA can work with partners such as the Defense Department and Veterans Benefits Administration to verify an applicant’s military service through other mechanisms. VA can verify eligibility for approximately 65% of Veterans without a DD-214. For applicants that we can’t verify from our files, we contact them and ask them to provide the necessary documentation.
Allegation: VA managers did not share the information in the pending files so as to not draw attention to the issue.
VA Fact: Information on Pending Records was readily shared with network directors and Veterans Service Organizations (VSO). As recently as January of this year, data was presented to VSO’s to keep them informed.
We have focused our efforts over the last several years to make enrolling in our system more Veteran-friendly by:
- Providing capability for Veterans to apply by telephone making it easier for Veterans so they do not have to travel to a VA medical center.
- Deploying an online interactive Health Benefits Explorer, in which Veterans can learn about enrolling in VA health care by answering just a few questions from a computer. The Health Benefits Explorer can be found at: http://www.va.gov/healthbenefits/health-benefits-explorer/
- Lessening the amount of time to complete the application by 15 minutes by reducing the number of questions on our application form. (Veterans who wish to enroll for VA healthcare can apply at: http://www.va.gov/healthbenefits/)
- Eliminating the annual reporting requirement for most Veterans to provide financial information to VA.
- Delivering a customized Veteran Health Benefits Handbook that provides new enrollees with a personalized description of benefits, contact and other useful information regarding accessing health care.
- Deploying a new and safer Veterans Health Identification Card without a social security number, protecting Veterans from identity theft.
At VA, it is our privilege to provide care and benefits to America’s Veterans. Those who have questions about their enrollment may call VA at 1-877-222-VETS (8387) or visit https://www.1010ez.med.va.gov to apply.
Stephanie Mardon is the Acting Chief Business Officer for the Veterans Health Administration.