The Atlanta VA has abandoned more than 200,000 health care applications this year alone


The Atlanta VA Medical Center

(Department of Veterans Affairs)

An arm of the Veterans Affairs Department in Atlanta eliminated 208,272 applications from across the country for health care early this year amid efforts to shrink a massive backlog of requests, saying they were missing signatures or information about military service and income, according to records reviewed by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Veterans groups say the VA should have done more to communicate with the veterans before closing their applications, some of which date back to 1998. Troops face additional challenges in applying for VA health care, they said, as they grapple with reentry into civilian life, change addresses following overseas deployments and suffer from combat stress.

In the middle of the controversy is the VA's Health Eligibility Center, the Atlanta office that oversees the process by which veterans seek access to the VA medical system. It and its parent agency have come under intense scrutiny in recent years for mismanagement and delays in providing medical care, presenting a thorny challenge for the administration of President Donald Trump, who focused on veterans' care during his presidential campaign.

As of April, 8.8 million veterans were enrolled in the VA's health care system, the agency's records show. The VA said it enrolled 395,417 people in its health care system and rejected 98,897 in the fiscal year ending in September. Its backlog of pending applications totaled 317,157 in April, down from a high of 886,045 last year, according to records the VA sent the AJC.

That current backlog is still "way too high," said Jeremy Butler, CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, a New York-based advocacy group. He suggested additional collaboration between the VA and veteran service groups could shrink it more.

"Something is not quite working right if we are not getting that number lower than it is," he said. "We need to be working together to get that number down."

Butler joined Adrian Atizado, deputy national legislative director for Disabled American Veterans, a nonprofit charity based in Kentucky, in criticizing the VA's efforts to reach the veterans before rejecting and closing their 208,272 applications.

The VA sent out one rejection letter to each of those applicants in 2016. In 2017, a bipartisan group of federal lawmakers — including Georgia Sen. Johnny Isakson — urged the VA to send the applicants an additional letter clarifying what missing information they needed to turn in. The lawmakers were responding to allegations that a coding error caused the VA to send veterans incorrect letters about what they still needed to submit.

The VA said it opted against sending an additional letter after its Office of Inspector General determined there was no such error and that the letters it sent in 2016 were appropriate and complied with federal law.

Isakson, who leads the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, was unavailable for an interview, according to an aide. But his spokeswoman said the VA took Isakson's recommendation to have the inspector general review the issue and then briefed the senator's committee about its decision to close the applications.

Atizado called the VA's decision to send just one letter to the applicants in 2016 before closing their cases this year "quite unfortunate."

"When we hear about the VA not taking a more thoughtful approach to a situation like this — when they only send one letter because they have an incomplete application — I think we all should be expecting our government and this administration to do better by our veterans," he said.

The VA said veterans may reapply for health care. The agency said it is now striving to contact people about incomplete applications up to six times each with phone calls and letters. Its Health Eligibility Center in Atlanta, meanwhile, has added 115 employees since July of 2016.

The 208,272 eliminated cases didn't receive such treatment, though. That also has drawn renewed criticism from Scott Davis, a VA employee and whistleblower who testified before Congress in 2014 about problems at the VA's Health Eligibility Center, located off Clairmont Road.

"This purge has the dual effect of letting the VA avoid the work of processing the applications and absolving the agency of any responsibility for veterans' delayed access to health and disability benefits," Davis wrote in an article for the Washington Examiner in May.

Defending its decision, the VA pointed to a federal law that says applications that remain incomplete for a year cannot be approved.

"In accordance with federal law, VA closed 208,272 incomplete health care enrollment applications between January and February," the VA said in a prepared statement. "It would have been illegal for VA to keep the applications open."

Davis disputed that, saying the law doesn't say anything about closing applications. In an interview, he accused the VA of "purging applications under a law that does not give them the authority to do so."

Asked how many of the 208,272 applications the agency closed were from former prisoners of war, Purple Heart recipients and combat veterans, the VA told the AJC that the newspaper would have to file a request under the federal Freedom of Information Act for that information. The AJC did that last month and its request is still pending.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has reported extensively on problems in the Veterans Affairs Department's health care enrollment process for years, including delays in treatment. Read all of the newspaper's coverage on


©2019 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Ga.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

SEE ALSO: 2 Veterans Died By Suicide At Separate Georgia VA Centers In One Weekend

U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Aliah Reyes, a Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) recovery team recovery noncommissioned officer, sifts through dirt during a recovery mission in Lang Son Province, Vietnam, Oct. 29, 2019. (Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Rusty Frank)

The 80-minute ride each day to the site in Lang Son Province, Vietnam, through mostly unspoiled forestland and fields, reminded Air Force Master Sgt. Aliah Reyes a little of her hometown back in Maine.

The Eliot native recently returned from a 45-day mission to the Southeast Asian country, where she was part of a team conducting a search for a Vietnam War service member who went missing more than 45 years ago and is presumed dead.

Reyes, 38, enlisted in the Air Force out of high school and has spent more than half her life in military service. But she had never been a part of anything like this.

Read More
A smoking U.S. Army Stryker Infantry Carrier Vehicle in Poland on January 18, 2020 (Facebook/Orzysz 998)

A U.S. Army Stryker armored vehicle burst into flames on the side of a Polish roadway on Saturday, the Army confirmed on Monday.

Read More
A U.S. Soldier assigned to 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne) runs for cover during a live fire exercise at the 7th Army Training Command, Grafenwoehr Training Area, Germany. (U.S. Army/Gertrud Zach)

A memo circulating over the weekend warning of a "possible imminent attack" against U.S. soldiers in Germany was investigated by Army officials, who found there to not be a serious threat after all.

Read More

The U.S. Navy will name its fourth Ford-class aircraft carrier after Doris Miller, an iconic World War II sailor recognized for his heroism during the Pearl Harbor attack, according to reports in The Honolulu Star-Advertiser and U.S. Naval Institute News.

Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly is expected to announce the naming of CVN-81 during a ceremony on Monday in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, according to USNI. Two of Miller's nieces are expected to be there, according to the Star-Advertiser.

Read More
Comedian and activist Jon Stewart meets with members of Toxic Exposures in the American Military (TEAM), a coalition of veteran and military service organizations, Jan. 17 on Capitol Hill. (Courtesy of TEAM)

Comedian Jon Stewart has joined forces with veterans groups to make sure service members who have been sickened by toxins from burn pits get the medical care they need, according to the Military Officers Association of America.

"Quite frankly, this is not just about burn pits — it's about the way we go to war as a country," Stewart said during his Jan. 17 visit to Washington, D.C. "We always have money to make war. We need to always have money to take care of what happens to people who are selfless enough, patriotic enough, to wage those wars on our behalf."

Read More