The number reflects the number of veterans with pending enrollment applications that the Social Security Administration reports as deceased -- but nothing indicates they went without medical care or died while actively seeking enrollment into the VA system, according to a senior official with the department’s Veterans Health Administration.
“[The IG] could not determine specifically how many pending records represent veterans who applied for health care benefits or when they may have applied,” Acting Deputy Under Secretary for Health for Operations and Management Janet Murphy said in an official VA blog post on Thursday.
Lawmakers cited the figure as further evidence of mismanagement at the VA, which has been rocked by a series of scandals over the past few years, notably reports that many hospitals kept secret wait lists to conceal the fact that so many veterans were stuck in the system and unable to receive treatment.
Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, said the IG report is evidence that veterans should be able to get their health care needs met anywhere and not be tied to the VA system.
“It is absolutely clear that the way ahead for reform of the VA must be to empower all veterans to immediately get the care they need where and when they need it -- regardless of the location -- and never allow bureaucrats to deny our nation’s heroes the benefits they deserve,” he said.
Rep. Dan Benishek, R-Michigan, called the IG findings “outrageous and ... tragic.”
“The endless amount of probing and investigations that it takes before the VA finally reveals the truth about the mismanagement that is occurring has got to stop now,” said Benishek, who spent 20 years as a doctor with the VA Medical Center in Iron Mountain, Michigan.
But according to Murphy, the department official, the lawmakers and the media reports based on the IG findings aren’t accurate.
Some of the veterans could have applied for health care years ago and gone on to get care outside the VA. Murphy said the department does not have the authority to remove a claim from pending status even if they attempt, but fail, to contact the veteran.
For that reason, any number of applications for care could remain in the system, regardless of when it went in and whether the individual is alive or deceased.
Murphy did concede that its own system is the reason the IG was not able to say exactly how many pending records represented veterans who applied for health care benefits or when they applied, calling it “data weaknesses within our system which we are working hard to improve.”
Applications stay in pending status if they’re not complete, if a veteran’s record is transferred into the system even though he or she may not have initiated enrollment, or if a veteran accessed VA care prior to 1998, according to Murphy.
She also said that the veterans with pending applications are not already enrolled in VA health care, so that it’s a mistake to think that of the deceased had been department patients or enrollees.
She criticized media reports suggesting otherwise, saying “VA has repeatedly pointed this out to inquiring media.”
Author Kelly Kennedy, a Gulf War veteran and former reporter who now writes on veterans’ issues for the law firm Bergmann & Moore, which specializes in veterans’ cases, responded to Murphy’s blog posting on her own site.
The VA posting, she wrote, “started out nicely: a contrite acknowledgement that things need to be fixed. And then it went downhill, into a convoluted statement that things aren’t as bad as the media are making them out to be (it’s always the media’s fault because blame-shifting), but we can’t tell you exactly how bad they are because we don’t know.”
--Bryant Jordan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.