WASHINGTON -- More than 35,000 combat veterans are being denied health care enrollment by the Department of Veterans Affairs because of a computer system error, according to an internal document obtained by The Huffington Post.
Scott Davis, a program specialist at the VA's Health Eligibility Center in Atlanta and a past whistleblower on VA mismanagement, provided HuffPost with a recent VA analysis of the number of combat vets, by city, who are listed as "pending" for health care enrollment because they didn't complete a so-called means test, which assesses their household income. Many vets have to submit a means test to be enrolled, but it's not required for combat vets, who are automatically eligible for five years of free care. The policy is spelled out on the VA's website.
The document shows that 35,093 combat vets who applied for health care aren't getting it because the VA system has erroneously flagged them as needing to submit a means test.
"The VA has created an illegal, artificial barrier for people to access care," Davis said. "We're not talking about people who didn't get care because they didn't want it. We're talking about people who turned in applications and VA said, 'No, go into a backlog because you didn't give us financial information.'"
VA spokeswoman Walinda West confirmed that combat vets aren't required to provide financial information to be enrolled in health care.
"VA is actively taking action to enroll and further reach out to these Veterans (by telephone and letters) due to the length of time some of these applications have been pending," West said.
The vast majority of these combat vets served in Iraq or Afghanistan. About 16,000 of them have been pending for more than five years, while about 19,000 have been pending from between one month and five years. Combat vets lose their eligibility for free health care after five years.
The document comes on the heels of another leaked VA document from April showing that nearly one-third of 847,000 vets with pending applications for health care had already died.
Davis contacted the House and Senate veterans affairs committees about the glitch. The House committee reached out to VA officials on Aug. 3 asking for details, but hasn't heard back yet. A spokeswoman for the Senate committee said committee staff are scheduled to meet with VA officials at the Health Eligibility Center this week and plan to press for information on this issue.
VA management has known about the problem since at least April. Last month, they issued a "change request" directing their systems management staff to create a computer script to "automatically complete a means test" for all pending combat vets.
VA staffers also started working overtime last month to call all 35,000 combat vets to let them know of their pending health care status.
The problem, though, is that nothing has happened since the change request was issued. On top of that, VA staffers are telling combat vets they have to fill out another form agreeing to co-pays before they can be enrolled -- even though they already agreed to co-pays in their original application. That's creating another barrier to enrollment for a group of vets who should never have been listed as pending in the first place.
Here's the phone script staffers have been using at the Health Eligibility Center:
Davis said there's a simple solution: go into the computer system, gather the Social Security numbers of combat vets listed as pending, and tell the system they are enrolled immediately. He said VA Secretary Bob McDonald has the authority to direct that change, and arguably a duty to do so since combat vets have been legally entitled to special health care eligibility status since January 2008.
Asked why McDonald hasn't taken this action, West said the secretary "does not have the legal authority" to automatically enroll vets in health care. But she didn't clarify whether, specifically, he has the authority to override the VA computer system error that says combat vets need to fill out a means test, which is keeping them from being enrolled.
"We are taking steps to contact and/or enroll these applicants as quickly as possible to ensure all appropriate action is taken and resolved to the satisfaction of those Veterans for whom we are honored to serve," West said. "We sincerely apologize for the inconvenience that this issue may have caused our Veterans. We are working to get this right."
HuffPost asked McDonald himself about the problem on Thursday, via a tweet read aloud at a Politico event, but he didn't address it. Instead, he announced his phone number and said to call him directly.
"I'd be happy to check out their particular instance," McDonald said to Politico's Mike Allen, in response to the tweet. "I like to deal with specifics and not generalities. Customer service is about one-on-one care. ... You have my phone number."
HuffPost called and left a message. He didn't return the call.
This story has been updated with comments from a Senate Veterans Affairs Committee spokeswoman.