Roughly 32,000 veterans are receiving letters this month notifying them that their disability claims submitted through the VA.gov website weren't processed, with the error dating back to 2018 for some.
A Department of Veterans Affairs official told Military.com Monday that the letters were going to all veterans “impacted by the issue,” which was described as a "technical issue" that resulted in the claims not being automatically routed for processing.
“We deeply apologize to these veterans for the delay, and we will ensure they receive the benefits they've earned as quickly as possible,” VA Press Secretary Terrence Hayes said in an email.
Beginning earlier this month, affected veterans began receiving letters that their claims may not have been reviewed.
“The Department of Veterans Affairs is sending this letter in response to an issue identified which may have resulted in a failure to establish a claim based on your past submission through the ... platform VA.gov,” the letter stated.
Recipients were told that the VA was conducting a thorough review of the issue and they did not need to take any action. But they were advised to pay attention to their mail for future requests from the VA for additional information, as needed.
Hayes said that after discovering the problem, the VA “implemented a solution in February that has prevented any additional veterans from being affected.”
“We are processing these claims with the utmost urgency,” Hayes said. “We will ensure that the effective date for every one of these veterans is preserved [meaning that if their claims are granted, their benefits will be backdated to their original date of filing -- or sooner, as applicable by law -- as if their claims had been processed immediately upon submission]."
Army National Guard Lt. Col. Luke Bushatz was among the veterans who received the letter. His wife Amy, former executive editor of Military.com, said the letter left her wondering exactly what it referenced.
"I'm not even sure what claim was messed up," Amy Bushatz said.
In 2022, the VA processed more than 1.7 million disability compensation and pension claims. As of early August, the number of pending claims totalled 1,043,961 -- with 274,148 considered to be “backlogged,” or older than 125 days.
Hayes did not provide the total number of claims that were affected, only the number of veterans. Some may have submitted multiple claims.
The VA has faced longstanding challenges with its aging information technology infrastructure, and the VA's fiscal 2024 budget request seeks to continue a years-long modernization effort. It proposes $6.4 billion for the Office of Information Technology to continue to upgrade its aging IT infrastructure and services, and $1.9 billion to convert to a new electronic health records system.
In a congressional hearing earlier this year, VA Secretary Denis McDonough warned that a Republican effort to maintain federal funding at fiscal 2022 levels would result in a shortfall of $345 million -- a gap he said would not allow VA to make the kind of infrastructure investments President Joe Biden envisions.
“The thing I'm asking you all to do is to make the investments the president has asked for here, to ensure that we have the institutions, the buildings, the technology and the people to be able to do it,” McDonough said during a House Veterans Affairs Committee budget hearing March 23.
This year alone, the VA has experienced a number of high-profile problems related to its aging IT systems and modernization efforts. Earlier this month, the department chose to extend a filing deadline for veterans to apply for retroactive disability compensation claims under the PACT Act after a surge in applications overwhelmed the department's online filing portal, resulting in roughly 20% of applicants receiving error messages.
And in April, the department halted all future deployments of a new electronic health records system, built by Oracle Cerner, as a result of problems experienced by the handful of facilities that use it, such as safety issues involving patients and providers encountering difficulties using the system.
The Oracle Cerner Millennium system is used at the Mann-Grandstaff VA Medical Center in Spokane, Washington, and its affiliated clinics; the Jonathan M. Wainwright Memorial VA Medical Center and clinics in Walla Walla, Wash.; the VA Central Ohio Health Care System; as well as the Roseburg VA Health Care System, and VA Southern Oregon Rehabilitation Center and Clinics in Oregon.
Regarding the claims processing delays for the 32,000 veterans, the VA asked veterans who received the letter to pay attention to the mail and respond to any correspondence the VA sends for additional information.
“We will continue to review our technology, processes, and systems to prevent such technical issues from impacting veterans in the future,” Hayes added.
-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Military.com. Follow her on Twitter and Threads @patriciakime.