White House Official Warned VA About New Vets.gov Enrollment App; Records Crisis Continues

Editor’s Note: VHA on Nov. 21 retracted its statement that it had no knowledge of lost or locked records. This update has been reflected here.

Just weeks before senior officials at the Veterans Health Administration ordered the launch of a new Online Health Care Application through Vets.gov, a senior policy adviser at the White House warned VHA officials that the new app had not been cleared by agency lawyers because of legal and technical issues that, ultimately, affected veteran enrollment across the nation.

As first reported by MeriTalk, VHA officials on June 30 ordered the launch of the Online Health Care Application (HCA) on Vets.gov without notifying or training the vast majority of VA enrollment specialists around the country and despite serious technical problems that led to tens of thousands of applications being lost or locked.

Dozens of new emails provided to MeriTalk by an agency whistleblower show that White House officials, including a member of the U.S. Digital Service, raised questions about the planned launch of the enrollment app and warned officials about potential legal problems. Those new internal VHA emails also show that as of Nov. 4, as many as 65 percent of veteran health care applications remain locked or lost, a situation described by one official as having “DIRECT NEGATIVE IMPACT on the Veteran experience.”

The number of applications estimated to have been affected by problems with HCA stands at 30,000, according to an agency whistleblower. Technical issues forced VHA officials to turn off HCA and route the applications back to an application called “Forum” for processing. All applications submitted through Vets.gov are currently being routed to the respective VA Medical Center into a holding file as they were prior to the activation of Vets.gov. Employees are working overtime to process the backlog.

However, Michele Hammonds of the VHA Office of Media Operations and Plans, said in an email, “There is no policy that states Veterans should be automatically placed on an ineligible status if the applications are missing information. Veterans are only marked as ineligible when they do not meet the basic eligibility criteria of 24 months of continuous active duty service or with no other qualifying special eligibility criteria.”

In a June 10 email addressed to Matthew Eitutis, acting director of Member Services, and two other officials from the VHA Health Resource Center, a senior adviser from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy acknowledged being caught by surprise by the planned rollout of the new version of the Veterans Online Application (VOA) and questioned why VHA was even working on the application.

“It has come to my attention that there’s some sort of new healthcare application rolling out soon…” the White House official wrote in the email labeled For Your Eyes Only. “I’m not sure how valid this is—have you heard of this?” the official asked, adding that word of the app came to the attention of the White House after a member of the U.S. Digital Service heard about it on a conference call.

“If this is true, this could create confusion with our roll-out (and I’m not clear on why the VOA team is still doing work on VOA),” the official wrote. “Based on conversations we have been having with the [general counsel], it seems VOA has not been cleared by VA legal counsel. There are a few things in VOA that may be legally problematic.”

 

An email obtained by MeriTalk shows that the White House was surprised by the rollout of a new online application on Vets.gov and had concerns about its legality.
An email obtained by MeriTalk shows that the White House was surprised by the rollout of a new online application on Vets.gov and had concerns about its legality.

Internal guidance documents also show that Eitutis instituted a program called the Veteran Enrollment Re-Work Plan (VERP) and directed employees to notify veterans that they are “ineligible” for VA care “due to lack of military service information” in their applications. VA employees began to complain that missing information was not a legal justification for marking a veteran ineligible. Whistleblowers argue it was an attempt to reduce the embarrassing backlog of pending applications and that it was done without notifying veterans of their appeal rights.

Whistleblowers argue that Eitutis “made a deliberate attempt to mislead VA senior officials,” who failed to notify the White House that the deployment was a failure before President Barack Obama delivered a speech at the Disabled American Veterans conference in August praising the system.

House Veteran Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., called the allegations “troubling” and told MeriTalk the committee is looking into them. “Right now, it’s incumbent upon VA leaders to ensure that every veteran’s health care application receives a fair and timely evaluation,” Miller said. “We will maintain pressure on the department until we are confident that is the case.”

Problems with the new online application, particularly lack of interoperability with the VA’s main electronic health record system, known as the Veteran Information Systems and Technology Architecture (VistA), continued as late as Sept. 30, emails show.

Hammonds said, “Member Services has no knowledge of records being locked or lost as a result of problems between VistA and the Enrollment System.”

But a Sept. 30 email sent by a an eligibility and enrollment supervisor to all VHA enrollment coordinators stated “there is a big disconnect between the online application and pulling the data into VistA.” According to the supervisor, the attempt to streamline the online application by removing questions created inconsistencies in the record when it was transmitted to VistA.

“There may be a false sense that reducing the number of questions on the application reduces the ‘time of burden’ for the veteran, but in actuality it increases the overall burden for everyone,” the supervisor wrote. “For instance, veterans are no longer asked for their next of kin and emergency point of contact on the application. Now if there is no followup, which happens, not only do we carry that inconsistency, but if the veteran is at the facility or becomes [a] patient and an emergency occurs, how does medical staff know who will be notified…then what?”

email2Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to include responses from VHA.

11 Comments
  1. Anonymous | - Reply
    The VA or more correctly, the Vets.gov team at the VA, just did the exact same thing with the veteran's education benefits last Friday by deploying a non-validated form being sent to corporate VBA systems where VA employees will have sift through the valid and invalid 22-1990 forms. Just amazing that this type of incompetence continues!
  2. Anonymous | - Reply
    ..and there is a member of the USDS VA team at a Bloomberg event right now as we speak lauding Vets.gov and how great it is. The digital services spin machine is in full operation, since none of the challenges cited in this article are being mentioned.
  3. Anonymous | - Reply
    Only a complete outsider is surprised that VHA is trowing something into service before it's fully tested. This is just one small example, but rest assured VHA will be buying and pressing things into service that few people knew about and no planning has happened. The one thing VHA knows is that they can always get forgiveness, so why ask for permission and follow any process that might get in the way. This won't end until senior leadership holds somebody in VHA accountable. Biomed and Biomed purchased systems are the usual culprits..
  4. Anonymous | - Reply
    VistA has run the VA, DoD (CHCS-I), and the Indian Health Service (IHS RPMS) for nearly 40 years. The vendors of commercial products have tried to replace VistA, but have universally failed. The VA management has put incredible funds toward replacing VistA with Commercial Off The Shelf products with no real success. VistA was designed to be enhanced and adapt to the changing face of Health Care. VistA is currently 180 aspects of the hospital and will run on a large system or a desk-top or even a laptop. The VA has not allowed VistA to evolve as it was intended, to be enhanced at the point of care. Solutions can be added to VistA in days compared to 18 to 24 months required by vendors. VistA was the first environment that embraced Rapid Prototyping even before there was a term for it.
  5. Anonymous | - Reply
    This is only a small piece of the Enourmous Unethical pie of Matt Eititus. he has hired all of his friends and buddies i. the last several months. ALL of them st GS15 levels - even his buddy who is a former Assoc Director at Topeka VAMC who is under investigation for having an inappropriate THREE YEAR AFFAIR who one of his employees and who used his VA computer to conduct the affair. Matt just reassigned him to a GS15 Director of VTS in Atlanta at the HEC. All of his hires did NOT have to go through the competitive process. Director of HEC, Director of Internal Controls, COO, Director of Finance. The list is long. He has changed the org chart at least five or six times in as many months creating new offices just for his friends and buddies. And that's just a fraction of his unethical behavior.
  6. Anonymous | - Reply
    Did you hear about how he ordered employees to cancel pending applications? yes that's being done too all in an effort to get the pending application numbers down so that he (Matt Eititus) can look good. last known number of pending applications is circa 900,000! Matt was sent to Atlanta HEC to 'clean up' the pending app issue and under his watch over the last 14 months the issue had grown. He is a liar and should be fired!!! He is directly responsible for DENYING VETERANS THEIR BENEFITS THEY HAVE EARNED AND DESERVE! HIS ONLY quest is to get all his buddies jobs they don't deserve and know nothing about!
  7. Anonymous | - Reply
    i have emails where Matt Eititus coerced and lied to the Human Resource folks, where he set up former directors who he wanted to remove so that he can get his buddies in. emails and text message of online affairs using government equipment, lies he commuted under oath during an investigation, discriminatory behavior , prohibited personnel practices, ..the list goes on! he is currently awaiting a permanent assignment as the new SES Director for Member Services. if he gets the position it will be the absolute worst decision not only for the employees but more importantly for Veterans.
  8. Anonymous | - Reply
    And...his buddy that he just reassigned to the GS15 position is currently under investigation by VA's Office of Specual Counsel because of misconduct due to use of VA equipment to conduct the affair. and to top it off, he is still listed in the VAs global directory as still being the Associate Director at Topeka VA, Why? To hide the fact that Matt assigned him to Director of VTS in Atlanta? Does OSC know about this? hmmmm?
  9. Anonymous | - Reply
    And he just hired. new Director for HEC in Atlanta who has absolutely no experience and who only worked for VA for a few months. there is an email floating around where this new female director talks about being hung over from a night out during with Matt during a visit to D.C. to meet with the Under Secretary...so is that how she got a GS15 job with no experience, knowledge or skillset to run a complex national office?
  10. Anonymous | - Reply
    ANONYMOUS | NOV 21, 2016 AT 9:14 PM - REPLY i have emails where Matt Eititus coerced and lied to the Human Resource folks, where he set up former directors who he wanted to remove so that he can get his buddies in. emails and text message of online affairs using government equipment, lies he commuted under oath during an investigation, discriminatory behavior , prohibited personnel practices, ..the list goes on! he is currently awaiting a permanent assignment as the new SES Director for Member Services. if he gets the position it will be the absolute worst decision not only for the employees but more importantly for Veterans. ANONYMOUS | NOV 21, 2016 AT 9:20 PM - REPLY And...his buddy that he just reassigned to the GS15 position is currently under investigation by VA's Office of Specual Counsel because of misconduct due to use of VA equipment to conduct the affair. and to top it off, he is still listed in the VAs global directory as still being the Associate Director at Topeka VA, Why? To hide the fact that Matt assigned him to Director of VTS in Atlanta? Does OSC know about this? hmmmm? ANONYMOUS | NOV 21, 2016 AT 9:25 PM - REPLY And he just hired. new Director for HEC in Atlanta who has absolutely no experience and who only worked for VA for a few months. there is an email floating around where this new female director talks about being hung over from a night out during with Matt during a visit to D.C. to meet with the Under Secretary...so is that how she got a GS15 job with no experience, knowledge or skillset to run a complex national office?
  11. Anonymous | - Reply
    IMO this whole Vets.gov situation is a huge failure, I was perfectly happy with the Ebenefits website and I feel that time and resources would have been better spent improving what we already had. There are too many problems within the VA and adding an additional headache is the last thing we need.

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