The Department of Veterans Affairs’ top IT officials say warning bells didn’t sound when its website experienced problems, leading to a delayed response to address the issue.
VA officials said earlier this month that the department uncovered two technological issues with VA.gov that led to delays for some veterans who tried to update their dependency status or file disability claims appeals online.
The department estimates the IT issues may have affected the disability claims for nearly 57,000 veterans. But members of the House VA Committee’s technology modernization subcommittee said Tuesday that website issues have impacted closer to 100,000 veterans, when counting another VA.gov issue discovered earlier this year.
Kurt DelBene, VA’s assistant secretary for information and technology and its chief information officer, told lawmakers Tuesday that VA’s Office of Information and Technology (VA OIT) had “error check” capabilities in place for VA.gov, but said those systems “did not hit these particular circumstances.”
“We need to do more monitoring of situations like this, and we’re constantly adding to that monitoring. But in these particular cases, it was a missed error check, we just have to admit that,” DelBene said. “We constantly improve it, but there’s more for us to do.”
VA notified lawmakers on Sept. 5 that it uncovered several technical issues impacting a small percentage of the site’s overall traffic.
VA officials said the department first discovered the IT issue in August 2021, but the “full scope and urgency of the problem” wasn’t understood across VA until August 2023.
“I want to be very clear that, despite the limited scope of these issues, we view these problems as unacceptable, and we at the VA deeply apologize to the impacted veterans,” DelBene said.
VA Chief Technology Officer Charles Worthington said the department is working on a “comprehensive review” of all the services VA.gov offers, “so we can get a real-time sense of the error rates, with all of the downstream services that VA.gov integrates with.”
“Something that we learned, as a result of this incident, is that we did not have a fast enough ability to identify these issues as they occurred. And that’s what we are really focused on, with this first priority of getting better monitoring and observability set up,” Worthington said.
Worthington said VA’s Office of Information and Technology (VA OIT) is holding daily meetings on the VA.gov issues, and has a dashboard up tracking the success rate of each online transaction on the website.
“This is a top priority of our VA.gov team, to get a better sense of the health of each of those products,” Worthington said.
“The time that it took the VA to identify these problems proactively was really unacceptable and we are working hard to make sure that that doesn’t happen again,” he added.
The VA announced earlier this month it’s conducting a “full review” of all processing systems on its main website. Military.com first reported in August that the VA notified 32,000 veterans that their disability claims submitted online weren’t processed correctly.
Subcommittee Chairman Matt Rosendale (R-Mont.) said that the incident demonstrates that “VA.gov has gaps, and veterans are falling into those gaps.”
“The website didn’t alert the veterans that an error had happened. So they thought that everything was normal,” Rosendale said. “They just chalked it up to VA being slow on the delivery of their benefits. They never even called, inquired or complained about it,” Rosendale said.
Raymond Tellez, VA’s acting assistant deputy under secretary for automated benefits delivery, told lawmakers that the department considers 125 days or less as a reasonable turnaround for a veteran’s disability benefits claim.
“We’re trying to get those processes [done] as quickly as possible because that’s the expectation that veterans have in the real world,” Tellez said.
VA.gov is seeing an increase in users. Worthington said 65 million users signed into the site in the past year, a 50% increase from the previous year.