Leaked Document: Nearly One-Third Of 847,000 Vets With Pending Applications For VA Health Care Already Died
WASHINGTON — More than 238,000 of the 847,000 Veterans with pending applications for health care through the Department of Veterans Affairs have already died, according to an internal VA document provided to The Huffington Post.
Scott Davis, a program specialist at the VA’s Health Eligibility Center in Atlanta and a past whistleblower on the VA’s failings, provided HuffPost with an April 2015 report titled “Analysis of Death Services,” which reviews the accuracy of the VA’s Veteran death records. The report was conducted by staffers in the VA Health Eligibility Center and the VA Office of Analytics.
Flip to page 13 and you’ll see some stark numbers. As of April, there were 847,822 Veterans listed as pending for enrollment in VA health care. Of those, 238,657 are now deceased, meaning they died after they applied for, but never got, health care.
While the number is large — representing nearly a third of those listed as pending — some of the applicants may have died years ago. The VA has no mechanism to purge the list of dead applicants, and some of those applying, according to VA spokeswoman Walinda West, likely never completed the application, yet remain on the pending list anyway. West said the VA electronic health record system has been in place since 1985, suggesting some of the data may be decades old and some of those people may have gone on to use other insurance.
About 81 percent of Veterans who come to the VA “have either Medicare, Medicaid, Tricare or some other private insurance,” said West. “Consequently, some in pending status may have decided to use other options instead of completing their eligibility application.”
But Davis disputed West on every point. For starters, an incomplete application would never be listed as a pending application, he said. Beyond that, the health records system West is referring to is just that: general health records, not pending applications for enrollment in health care. The VA has only required enrollment in health care since 1998, he said, and there was no formal application process before that. Davis provided an internal VA chart that shows backlogged applications only beginning in 1998.
As for some Vets having other insurance, Davis said it is “immaterial and a farce” to suggest that means VA shouldn’t be providing Vets with the health care they earned.
“VA wants you to believe, by virtue of people being able to get health care elsewhere, it’s not a big deal. But VA is turning away tens of thousands of Veterans eligible for health care,” he said. “VA is making it cumbersome, and then saying, ‘See? They didn’t want it anyway.’”
At a minimum, the high number of dead people on the pending list indicates a poor bookkeeping process that overstates the number of living applicants — a number that should be closer to 610,000.
This waiting list is unrelated to the VA backlog that made news last year, which left Vets who already had coverage with extremely long wait times. VA press secretary Victoria Dillon told HuffPost the agency has made strides on that front, doubling the number of its appointments from 3.5 million to 7 million since last year.
Davis sent copies of the report to House and Senate committees that oversee Veterans affairs, and to the White House, hoping to spur congressional and presidential action to pressure VA to clear its health care backlog.
A spokesman for the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee did not respond to a request for comment. Eric Hannel, the staff director of the House Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, said his team is looking into the report’s findings.
“We take it seriously,” said Hannel.
A White House spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.
Davis recently sent a letter to Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), who chairs the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, laying out the problems with the health care backlog. He highlighted that 34,000 combat Veterans are among those listed as pending for health care — none of whom should be on that list since combat Veterans are granted five years of guaranteed eligibility for VA health care.
“They have no business being there,” he said. “These are men and women who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
The best thing President Barack Obama can do, said Davis, is force the VA to allow Veterans to upload their so-called DD-214 forms when they apply for health care. The form is a lifelong document that shows a person’s military record. If Veterans could use it to show their eligibility for health care, and if the VA assigned staff to review all of the pending applications, it would clear the logjam in the system, he said.
“The White House has the ability to direct the VA to do this immediately,” said Davis. “That would get rid of the pending eligibility issue.”
This story and its headline have been updated to clarify which VA backlog was revealed in the new document.
WASHINGTON — Veterans rejected for disability benefits will have a new slate of appeals options starting next month, when federal officials will put in place an overhaul the review process with hopes of dramatically cutting down on wait times for the complicated cases.
Last week, Department of Veterans Affairs officials announced they will implement new appeals modernization rules starting Feb. 19. Work on the effort has been underway for more than 18 months, since lawmakers passed sweeping reform legislation on the topic in August 2017.
Under the new rules, Veterans will be given three options for their benefits appeals. All three are designed to streamline the complicated existing process for cases, which can languish for years as new evidence and arguments are introduced throughout the timeline.
Now, VA leaders are hoping the most difficult reviews can still be completed in under a year in the vast majority of cases. Their target for cases which don’t go before the Board of Veterans Appeals is an average of about four months for a final decision.
A successful appeal can mean potentially thousands of dollars in monthly benefits payouts for Veterans who have previously been turned down for what they believe are service-connected injuries and illnesses. VA and Capitol Hill leaders hailed the changes as a long-overdue fix.
“(This) is the most significant reform in Veterans’ appeals processing in a generation and promises to improve the timeliness and accuracy of decisions for our nation's Veterans,” said House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Mark Takano, D-Calif.
He promised close oversight of the work ahead, but also hope about the potential rewards for Veterans.
Committee ranking member Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., last week visited a regional office in his home state that will be involved in the new appeals process and left feeling confident in its success.
“The VA staff feel really good about this,” he said. “They’re worked out the hiccups they’ve had, and are ready to move ahead. Getting all the training and experience is going to take time, but I walked away optimistic.”
Veterans groups largely supported the appeals overhaul, although a few groups have expressed concerns about the new system limiting Veterans options for future reviews in favor of getting faster answers.
Under the first of the three new appeals processes, Veterans can file a supplemental claim where they introduce new evidence backing their case. The appeal is handled by specialists at a regional office, who render a final decision on it.
In the second option, Veterans can request their case be reviewed by a senior claims adjudicator instead of the regional office. Those experts will review cases for clear errors or mistaken interpretations of statute. If they find mistakes, they can mandate corrections for the cases.
Finally, Veterans will also be able to appeal directly to the Board of Veterans’ Appeals. Those cases are expected to take the longest to process, because of the legal prep work involved. Veterans can get a direct decision or request a hearing before the board.
Portions of the new process have been implemented as pilot programs at select sites in recent months. Previously, cases involved a combination of all three options, with cases reset and repeating steps with every new submission of case evidence.
Veterans with cases currently pending in the system can opt-into the revamped processes starting next month, or remain in the current system if they believe it will better benefit them.
More information on the changes is available through the Veterans Affairs benefits website.
With the federal deficit expected to top $1 trillion this year, the Congressional Budget Office in December published a list of options for reducing the imbalance over the next 10 years, including three suggestions on Tricare and six that address Veterans benefits.
In its Options for Reducing the Deficit: 2019 to 2028, the CBO laid out 121 opportunities for curtailing spending and raising revenue. These include raising Tricare enrollment fees for military retirees, instituting enrollment fees for Tricare for Life and reducing Veterans benefits.
The publication marks the fourth time in five years that the CBO has suggested raising Tricare enrollment fees for working-age retirees and introducing minimum out-of-pocket expenses for those using Tricare for Life.
The CBO suggested that increasing Tricare enrollment fees for working-age retirees -- those under age 65 -- could help slash the deficit by $12.6 billion. To obtain this, it said, the Defense Department should more than double annual enrollment fees for individuals and families enrolled in Tricare Prime and institute annual fees of $485 for an individual and $970 for a family for Tricare Select. Most working-age retirees currently pay no enrollment fees for Tricare Select.
The CBO also suggested instituting enrollment fees for Tricare for Life, the program that serves as supplemental coverage for military retirees on Medicare. Analysts estimated that the Defense Department could save $12 billion between 2021 and 2028 if it adopted annual enrollment fees of $485 for an individual or $970 for a family for Tricare for Life, in addition to the Medicare premiums most military retirees 65 and older pay.
According to CBO analysts, these options would reduce the financial burden of Tricare for Life to the DoD in two ways: It would cut the government's share by the amount of fees collected and indirectly would save money by causing some patients to forgo Tricare for Life altogether, either by buying a private Medicare supplement or simply going without one.
Another option would be to introduce minimum out-of-pocket requirements for those using Tricare for Life. In this proposal, TFL would not cover any of the $750 of cost-sharing payments under Medicare and would cover just 50 percent of the next nearly $7,000.
Retired Navy Capt. Kathryn Beasley, director of government relations for health issues at the Military Officers Association of America, said her organization is concerned that the CBO continues to include health care rate hikes for military retirees in its list of options, which it publishes every few years or so. The CBO also ignored the fact that rate increases went into effect last year, she added.
"CBO does this every year. Our biggest concern is that some of these options would make their way into the president's budget," Beasley said. "With all the changes to the military health care system in the past year, we think we simply need to stabilize Tricare. It's been a lot to absorb."
According to the CBO, the Department of Veterans Affairs also presents several opportunities for cost-savings measures. Some suggestions in the CBO assessment include:
- Narrowing eligibility for disability compensation for seven diseases the Government Accountability Office has said are not caused or aggravated by military service, including arteriosclerotic heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, Crohn's disease, hemorrhoids, multiple sclerosis, osteoarthritis, and uterine fibroids. This option would save $33 billion over 10 years.
- Ending the VA's individual unemployability payments to disabled Veterans when they turn 67, the retirement age for receiving full Social Security benefits, which would save an estimated $48 billion.
- Reducing disability benefits to Veterans older than 67 who are receiving Social Security payments. This could save the government $11 billion.
- Eliminating disability compensation for 1.3 million Veterans with disability rates below 30 percent, saving $38 billion over an eight-year period.
The VA option with some of the largest savings potential, according to CBO, would be to end enrollment for the two million Veterans in Priority Groups 7 and 8 -- those who do not have service-connected disabilities and have income above the VA national threshold and below a geographically adjusted threshold (Group 7) or above both thresholds (Group 8). This could save the government up to $57 billion, CBO analysts said.
Finally, the CBO said the federal government could raise revenue by including VA disability payments as taxable income. According to the CBO, if all disability payments were to be taxed, federal revenues during the time frame would increase by $93 billion.
If just Veterans rated 20 percent or less paid taxes on their disability compensation, federal revenues would increase by $4 billion, it said.
CBO analysts say their options only "reflect a range of possibilities" and are not recommendations or a ranking of priorities. "The inclusion or exclusion of any particular option does not imply that CBO endorses it or opposes it," they wrote.
As part of our commitment to those that have served, taxpayers will spend $100 billion in 2019 towards benefits programs for Veterans. Costs for these programs have more than quadrupled since the year 2000. Few programs of this size and importance have received less attention from a policy perspective.
The VA’s disability compensation system is complex, cumbersome and frequently difficult to navigate. The approval process can be frustrating and slow — from obtaining copies of military service records to undergoing a comprehensive evaluation known as the Compensation and Pension examination, which is used to assign a disability rating from 0-100 percent.
The exam itself was first conceived in the 1940’s. It has only been modified through iterative changes and may fail to properly acknowledge some of the most common issues facing today’s Veterans, such as post traumatic stress (PTS).
Veterans who are dissatisfied with initial decisions often seek higher ratings. Despite real progress by VA in recent years, the backlog of appeals remains large and hundreds of thousands of Veterans wait on a system impeded by legislative restrictions and its own bureaucracy. This perpetuates an adversarial relationship between the Veteran and VA. Many Veterans who struggle to obtain an initial benefits’ decision become locked into a complicated process to prove their needs.
Few incentives exist for Veterans to improve their health status and decrease their disability rating. Under current policies, Veterans that improve may receive lower monthly payments. This also impacts Veteran's prospects in the workforce.
A recent study published in The National Bureau of Economic Research found that that changes broadening disability compensation eligibility were associated with a decrease in workforce participation among disabled Veterans. This lies in stark contrast to the large body of evidence suggesting that employment has a clear positive effect on Veteran's physical and mental well-being.
Disability compensation should be aligned with efforts to facilitate improvements in Veteran's health and financial security. To that end, we believe the following five policy principles should be considered by VA and the 116th Congress. These ideas would allow the VA to test new compensation models as they modernize an antiquated system:
- Disability ratings should be updated to reflect contemporary workforce needs. The current system places a high priority on physical attributes necessary for manual labor and does not acknowledge present day opportunities for many disabled Veterans to hold jobs in an increasingly digital economy.
- VA should make better use of its vast data to make more personalized disability compensation determinations. Leveraging what has become commonplace in the private sector, predictive analytic models can allow VA to tailor compensation more accurately. It may also be used to predict which Veterans will need more resources later in life due to individual characteristics or known disability profiles. Using these data to provide better initial determinations would allow VA to move away from a flawed and expensive appeals and re-rating process.
- VA should utilize best practices in behavioral economics to incentivize decisions that promote well-being and financial independence. Veterans should be incentivized to access healthcare when needed (e.g. PTS treatment). There should be simpler and more efficient linkages between the disability and the healthcare systems. When appropriate, the disability system should be integrated with programs that provide service dogs, adaptive sports and other programs that help Veterans regain functional and financial independence.
- VA should facilitate savings plans in the form of an individualized retirement account to reduce financial uncertainty for Veterans unable to participate in the workforce. With defaults that favor saving, VA can make it easier for Veterans to plan for the long-term financial implications of returning from service with significant disability.
- The benefits program should offer a lump sum payment option. Lump sum payments can provide Veterans with the resources needed to buy a house, start a business, or make other decisions that require capital resources up front. Lump sum payments are also advantageous to taxpayers because they can reduce future liabilities and create greater financial certainty over long lifetimes.
Reforming Veterans benefits will be controversial, but necessary. If left as is, the current system is at risk of becoming financially unsustainable. Reactionary funding cuts would harm Veterans and further compromise public trust in upholding our responsibility to caring for our Veterans. The commitment Americans have to our Veterans is too important to forgo needed reforms.
That many U.S. Veterans didn’t receive the educational benefits they were owed in recent months is inexcusable.
What would be an even greater outrage, however, is if the federal government allows these mistakes to persist.
The Department of Veterans Affairs must develop a clear plan to ensure GI Bill recipients receive their proper housing stipends and other educational benefits as soon as possible. The technology failures that reportedly caused thousands of Veterans to receive late or incorrect benefit payments in 2018 should be swiftly corrected.
There can be no more excuses.
So far, VA officials have offered little assurance that the situation is under control. After making a series of confusing statements, VA officials now say all GI bill recipients will receive the full housing payments and other benefits they are owed, retroactively if need be.
But while the VA committed to correcting some of its computer problems by Dec. 1, 2019, it still looks as if it will be many months before all Veterans are made whole.
That uncertainty is unacceptable for student Veterans who rely on precise benefit amounts to pay for tuition, food and rent.
The chaos is particularly uncalled for because the VA had a year to implement changes mandated by the Forever GI bill, as noted by U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington, at a recent committee hearing. The agency has said changes to how housing payments are calculated under that bill precipitated the recent IT failures and delays.
Congress did the right thing by stepping in last month and setting a deadline for the VA to fix its backlog of incorrect payments. But the compliance date of Jan. 1, 2020 remains too far away — especially since the VA was supposed to have already implemented these changes months ago.
As Murray told VA Secretary Robert Wilkie last month, “These are basic tasks that the VA cannot get wrong.” Murray and U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, recently signed onto a letter calling for an inspector general investigation into the VA’s payment problems.
To their credit, both houses of Congress also passed legislation to ensure universities won’t penalize students if the VA misses a tuition payment.
Yet these are steps Congress should have never had to take in the first place. Nor do they fully address whether the VA will be prepared to roll out other new benefits mandated under the Forever GI Bill in the coming months. Those include a benefits extension for students enrolled in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) programs, which is supposed to take effect in August 2019.
Earlier this year, the Pentagon changed the rules for troops who want to transfer their Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits to their dependents.
Most notably, the new policy will end transfers for service members who have been in uniform longer than 16 years, starting in July 2019. It also immediately put an end to previous exceptions that have allowed certain service members with more than 10 years in uniform to transfer the benefit without committing to serve four more years, including those who were unable to continue serving because of mandatory retirement or high-year tenure.
Defense Department officials have said the changes are “to more closely align the transferability benefit with its purpose as a recruiting and retention incentive."
“With these updates, the department addresses the intent of Congress and ensures the benefit is available for future service members,” DoD spokeswoman Jessica Maxwell in an email. She said the policy change will impact about 9 percent of active-duty service members, National Guardsmen and reservists.
The changes have been hotly contested by lawmakers and Veteran advocates, and after pushback, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis announced in September that none of the changes would apply to wounded warriors. Active-duty troops who have earned a Purple Heart for wounds in combat are now allowed to transfer their Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits to their family members whenever they want.
But more recently, Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., has introduced legislation that would scrap the DoD’s recent changes all together and open GI Bill transfer to Veterans who did not have dependents while on active duty.
Meanwhile, long-serving troops who want to transfer their GI Bill benefits to a spouse or child should plan on doing so before the July deadline kicks in.
“We understand that it will take some time for service members and their families to decide on transferring benefits, so by giving them a one-year window, we believe it will give them ample time to gather information and make decisions,” Maxwell said.
Improved Pension with Aid and Attendance
First, John explains the VA’s Aid and Attendance benefit. If a Veteran served at least 90 days of active duty, with one of those days being during a period of war, that person is a “wartime Veteran.” If that wartime Veteran needs help with their activities of daily living, and the costs associated with that care outweigh the Veteran’s ability to pay for it, then the VA will potentially kick in some extra money.
Technically, this benefit is called the improved pension with aid and attendance, but most people just call it aid and attendance.
It’s not only available to the Veteran, but it is also available to the surviving spouse of the Veteran, if they were married at least one year, married to the Veteran at the time of the Veteran’s death, and not remarried.
This income can be a life-saver, especially if it makes it possible for the Veteran or survivor to live in a facility that can care for their needs.
A few of the rules about eligibility for the Aid and Attendance benefit have changed. This includes clarification of the assets test, and a look-back period for any transfer of assets.
Clearly Defined Assets Test
This is a need-based benefit. In the past, the assets test for this benefit was very vague. One of the new rules is that there is bright line rule for net worth. There is now a clearly defined $123,600 limit on countable assets in order to qualify for this benefit.
John is concerned about how some of the changes are written. For example, a home is not a countable asset, but it is the home plus two acres. This means that folks who live on larger lots, or own extra land, will have a more complicated situation.
There is also a strange way that the VA is now calculating income as part of that net worth. In determining your assets, the VA will now look at something called your “income for VA purposes.” This takes your annual income, minus your unreimbursed medical expenses, and adds that to your net worth. This does not make any sense – there is no other context in which you included someone’s income in their net worth.
Adding A Look-back Period
The biggest change is that historically, the VA did not have a penalty for transferring assets. They now have a 3 year look-back period, similar to Medicaid. Any transferred that occurred in the 3 years prior to your application , any gift that happened during those 3 years, they can penalize you up to 60 months in the future.
The penalty period is calculated by taking the amount of the gift, and divide that by the maximum aid and attendance benefit for a single person with one dependent, which is about $2,170 per month. The VA won’t provide benefits for the number of months you’ve been penalized.
This only applies to gifts that are over the asset limit.
The maximum penalty can be no longer than five years.
This creates a tricky situation where you have to be sure that you wait at least the three years after transferring any assets or else you may find yourself penalized for longer than the look-back period.
What This Means For You
The big takeaway from these changes is that if you may be eligible for this benefit, you might need to do some advance planning. In the past, there was no reason to plan until you were going to apply for the benefit. Because of these changes, you might want to take some actions in advance to ensure you are eligibility for this benefit when the time comes.
Thousands of Veterans who attended a vocational school or college that closed will have their benefits restored under the "Forever GI Bill," experts say.
Lawmakers this month sent an expanded GI educational benefits bill, known as the "Forever GI Bill" to President Donald Trump's desk to sign.
The Forever GI Bill, which passed the U.S. Senate unanimously, is estimated to cost more than $3 billion over 10 years.
"It restores benefits to Veterans who were impacted by school closures since 2015 and has special benefits for our reservists, surviving dependents and Purple Heart recipients," said Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin in a statement.
The new law will also eliminate the 15-year limit on educational benefits for new enlistees. As the bill's nickname implies, Veterans will no longer have a time limit for completing their education.
Since the GI Bill's creation in 1944 during World War II, it has been updated several times to help Veterans pay for college and training. The last expansion, the post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act, often called the post-9/11 GI Bill, was eight years ago.
The 2009 expansion increased Veteran student enrollment at colleges, says Liang Zhang, a professor at New York University's Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, who studies higher education policies. Zhang found in his recent study that the last expansion increased enrollment rates by 3 percentage points from comparing the 2005-2008 period with 2010-2015.
According to the 2017 annual report by the Department of Veterans Affairs, 79 percent of Veterans who enrolled in a higher education program in 2016 were beneficiaries from the post-9/11 program.
"If the last GI Bill had a significant enrollment, then we could probably expect an increase in general enrollment by the current expansions," Zhang says.
[Explore ways community colleges serve Veterans.]
Veteran advocacy groups say Trump is expected to sign the Forever GI Bill. Here are five big changes once the bill becomes law.
1. Veterans whose colleges shut down in the middle of the semester will have their benefits restored. The closure of several colleges and universities in 2015 and 2016, many of which were for-profit, adversely affected many student Veterans, experts say.
"So those who were attending ITT when it closed will have a full restoration of the benefits and be able to use the benefit at a different school," says James Schmeling, executive vice president of District of Columbia-based Student Veterans of America, a nonprofit advocacy group.
But this benefit is not just for those who attended ITT Technical Institute, it also applies to service members who attended a postsecondary institution that closed after January 2015. According to the Congressional Budget Office, $50 million will go toward restoring benefits to thousands of Veterans next year.
2. New service members can use the benefit throughout their lifetimes. The caveat is it's only for those who were discharged on or after Jan. 1, 2013.
For those who meet this cutoff, the expansion will eliminate the 15-year time limit to use these benefits.
Experts say this will enable more Veterans to complete college or higher education courses for a career, which are necessary for wage gains.
3. The expanded benefits emphasize STEM programs. The expansion encourages Veterans to enroll in science, technology, engineering or math degrees through financial incentives.
[Discover how Veterans can afford pricey private university tuition.]
Schmeling says student Veterans often voice that they had to choose other fields since some STEM bachelor's degrees can take up to five years to complete.
"They were choosing other degrees that they could complete during the availability of their GI benefit. So extending them allows them to take STEM more seriously than they might have before," he says.
Veterans interested in these fields will be eligible to receive either nine months more of educational benefits or up to $30,000 in a lump sum, the maximum amount.
While many of the bill's provisions go into effect next year, this provision won't be available until August 2019.
4. All Purple Heart recipients since Sept. 11, 2001 are now eligible for educational benefits. Previously, many reservists who were injured during active service didn’t meet the full requirements for the GI Bill.
With this expansion, 1,500 Purple Heart recipients will become eligible for GI benefits, Veteran advocates say.
5. GI Bill entitlements can be transferred to another dependent or spouse. Veterans will be able to transfer the remainder of their entitlement to another dependent in cases where the dependent who initially received the transferred benefits dies.
A dependent will also be able to transfer the remaining benefits to another dependent after the death of the Veteran, too.
"It's not really a large expansion, but it's a humanitarian need for those who need to transfer," Schmeling says.
1,300 disabled Vets are getting billed for thousands of dollars ... because VA didn’t check their email
Approximately 1,300 disabled Veterans were overpaid thousands of dollars under a Veterans Affairs Department education benefits program last year and now must figure out a way to pay that money back.
Why? Mostly because staff at VA regional offices didn’t check emails, a recent investigation by the VA Office of Inspector General has found.
The overpayments happened during the 2016-2017 academic year under the VA’s second-largest education program, Dependents’ Educational Assistance, which pays up to $1,224 for schooling per month to spouses and children of totally and permanently disabled Veterans or deceased service members.
Veterans who are 100 percent service disabled are eligible to receive monthly stipends of $266 for each college-aged child they have in school as part of their disability check from the VA. But these benefits cannot overlap with DEA.
Yet, in it at least 70 percent of cases during the 2016-17 school year, they did, in large part because emails from Veterans claim examiners were going unread at many VA regional offices.
Now, Vets who were overpaid owe VA a total of $4.5 million for the department’s mistake — an average of more than $3,400 each.
This represents “a hardship for seriously disabled Veterans,” the report states.
In its review of all 58 VA regional offices, Office of Inspector General auditors found that as of May 2018, 25 had an approximate total of 4,600 unread emails dating back to August 2016. The majority of these emails, 67 percent, were about DEA benefits and potentially required adjustments to Veterans’ claims to keep them from being overpaid.
In interviews recorded in the report, VA staff at seven of these offices said they had not been monitoring mailboxes related to the DEA program before the audit.
For example, a representative from the Oakland, California, office “stated that the mailbox had not been monitored for three years because managers had been reassigned, but not their mailbox monitoring duties.”
Another in Houston said the DEA inbox was “not considered a workload priority” because of other workload targets the office was required to meet, according to the report.
Already, the VA has instituted a new policy requiring regional offices to check DEA-related emails twice a month, Susan Carter, a spokesperson for the agency, said in an email.
Additionally, the VA Office of Field Operations has committed to sending weekly reminders to check the emails to the regional offices and will likely incorporate oversight of this into future site visits, according to the report.
Joe Plenzler, a spokesman for Wounded Warrior Project, said the organization is concerned about the impact these overpayments will have on the affected Veterans and plans to work with VA on the department’s plans to remedy the situation.
“We would hope that the VA would avoid any significant disruptions or financial burdens on the recipients,” he said in an email.
Carter said the agency has already identified the Veterans who were overpaid and expects to complete all payment adjustments by June 30. Veterans will have several payment options available.
“VA is implementing improvements that will focus on the timely establishment of compensation adjustments, ensuring receipt of DEA program benefit notifications by VA regional office staff, and promptly identifying and rectifying payment duplications,” Carter said.
The inspector general’s report also recommends VA move to an electronic system to better identify when there’s a potential for Veterans to get paid out of both programs in order to cut down on overpayments.
If delays continue, the report states, the VA could end up paying another $22.5 million in improper payments over the next five years.
“I see everyone screaming that this is an outrage now and that’s great,” one Veteran advocate said. “But where were they three months ago and where’s the president now?"
Confusion has reigned in Washington in recent weeks after the Department of Veterans Affairs provided a series of inconsistent messages about delayed or incorrect payments to Veterans covered by the GI Bill. As the issue gained steam, lawmakers demanded further answers, introduced a related bill and called for an investigation to find out what went wrong and what VA plans to do to fix the problem.
For many, behind this flurry of sternly worded letters and acts of oversight, however, lies an open question: Who should be held accountable for a series of missteps that left student Veterans in dire financial circumstances?
There’s also an attempt to discern whether this is a systemic issue at a beleaguered federal agency or mismanagement by a new administration.
“The VA is responsible for executing the handshake that America makes with people in uniform,” said Paul Rieckhoff, the founder and executive director of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. “When they screw up, it’s bigger than a bureaucratic issue.”
WHAT WENT WRONG
The “screw up” Reickhoff referred to surrounds the passage and implementation of the Forever GI Bill, which expanded generous Veteran education benefits that were supposed to come into effect on Aug. 1, 2018. Because of a series of computer problems when calculating Veterans’ housing allowance, however, VA was late to pay some GI Bill recipients the money they were owed or paid them the wrong amount.
Some of those student Veterans faced difficult financial circumstances because they were dependent on the check they received through the GI Bill to pay for housing, books, transportation, food and more.
As a result, VA officials announced in late November that they would delay implementing two sections of the law until Dec. 1, 2019, and pay Veterans by a different calculation.
But what soon came to light is that some Veterans might be paid less than they were owed under the new law, and a series of inconsistent statements from VA last month that made national headlines compelled some lawmakers to act.
Sens. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., and Doug Jones, D-Ala., introduced a bill last week that would create a commission at the VA responsible for auditing all education claims to ensure that student Veterans are paid in full.
“In the last several weeks, we’ve seen hearings and statements from VA officials that show they barely grasp the problem and have no grasp of a solution,” Gardner told NBC News. “In the meantime Veterans are worried about paying for food, rent, electricity and school. And that’s unacceptable.”
VA officials told Congress in mid-November that they refused to say when they would implement the GI Bill changes. Less than two weeks later, they took a firm position and announced the changes would be delayed until Dec. 1, 2019.
That began a series of evolving VA positions around housing payments that confounded lawmakers and Veterans, as each new statement appeared to conflict with one made previously.
Within hours of the announced delay, VA officials privately told congressional staffers on a briefing call that they did not intend to go back through education claims to discover whether they owed any Veterans additional funds.
A little more than 12 hours after NBC News published an article reporting the private discussion, Paul Lawrence, who oversees the Veterans Benefits Administration, claimed before a congressional hearing that the report was misleading, stating “nothing could be further from the truth.”
After members of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee questioned him further, however, Lawrence admitted that VA was unsure whether it was worth the effort to audit past education claims and ensure that students Veterans were paid all the money they were owed. A letter later sent by Democrats on the committee to Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie affirmed the call between congressional staffers and VA officials had occurred.
However, hours later, Wilkie released a statement overriding Lawrence and appearing to promise that all student Veterans would be fully paid in accordance with the law — eventually.
VA still has not publicly stated how it will implement the change or predicted when it will be able to provide the back pay, leaving many once again suspicious of the agency's ability to deliver on its promises.
"Way too many people are willing to believe the VA," said Rieckhoff. "We don't believe anybody until the check is in the bank. And we shouldn’t. You can’t take a promise from an undersecretary to your landlord. You can’t take a letter from a senator and pay your rent."
Nevertheless, some lawmakers — on both sides of the aisle — have sent letters to push the agenda forward on behalf of Veterans.
Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., an Iraq War Veteran and former assistant secretary for public affairs at VA, sent a letter to Wilkie and three credit reporting agencies last week urging them to act so that no Veterans would face long-term financial hardships and credit penalties because of the delayed or incorrect payments.
Duckworth’s letter notes how debt incurred because of the ongoing issue could cause Veterans to face numerous financial penalties. Veterans have faced late bill fees, interest on loans and credit cards and bank fees because of the incorrect or delayed payments, putting Veterans even further behind financially and potentially impacting their credit scores.
“Bottom line, the Veterans should not suffer any negative consequences,” Duckworth told NBC News. “The VA needs to pay them back and pay them back with interests and make sure that credit bureaus don’t take any negative action on their credit reports.”
WHO IS ACCOUNTABLE?
Amid all the back and forth, it remains unclear whether anyone will be held accountable. At the mid-November congressional hearing, VA officials representing the Office of Information Technology and others representing the Veterans Benefits Administration appeared to point fingers at each other.
That has left lawmakers like Gardner frustrated. He said figures at VA appear more adept at playing the blame game than taking responsibility.
“Stop pointing fingers, stop passing the buck and start being accountable and ready for the future,” Gardner told NBC News, adding that it appeared to him that the agency continued to have a “readiness problem.”
Two former officials at VA have told NBC News that in the days and weeks after the Forever GI Bill was signed into law, members of the IT office promised they would be able to implement the system changes by the following April.
Those promises allowed the issue to fly below the radar, they said, but an aging system and a litany of other computer problems forced delays and further troubles.
”It’s a very complicated piece of legislation, but the bottom line is that IT lied and couldn’t pull it off and no one got held accountable,” one official said.
Duckworth noted that the Trump administration waited two years to appoint someone to lead the VA’s IT office, which cycled through three acting leaders in the interim.
“The problem is the Trump administration only just now got the CIO of VA confirmed in the last month. They’ve gone almost two years without a chief information officer,” she said. “That’s unacceptable.”
A secondary issue is the complexity of the changes that the Forever GI Bill called for and the lack of resources allocated to address them. While Congress authorized $30 million to help with system updates, the funding was never appropriated.
“The changes to the GI Bill don’t magically appear because Congress says they have to,” one official said. “There are resources that are needed — both people and money.”
Former Secretary of Veterans Affairs David Schulkin, who left the VA earlier this year, said he was proud to have been secretary when the Forever GI Bill expansion occurred and the opportunities it provided. He declined to speak further on the issue, but noted that implementing a law is never simple.
“Every piece of legislation is a heavy lift to do well,” he said in an email.
VETERANS LEFT DISAPPOINTED
Reickhoff said that lawmakers should have known this was an issue and pressed VA officials for answers sooner. He said it was particularly discouraging that White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders and the president have said nothing about the ongoing crisis for some Veterans.
“I see everyone screaming that this is an outrage now and that’s great,” Rieckhoff said. “But where were they three months ago and where’s the president now? He personally billed himself as a philanthropist, someone who could fix the VA.”
To Rieckhoff, he’s yet to see any indication that they are any different from previous administrations.
Veteran issues, he said, are apparently only important on Veterans Day, Memorial Day or when there is a big crisis.
“Trump is the dog that caught the car,” Rieckhoff said. “They talked a big game about VA and how they would clean it up and fix it. They just found out that it’s as complicated as it was for everyone else.”