VA outlines fixes to VA.gov errors impacting benefits for more than 120,000 veterans

The Department of Veterans Affairs is outlining plans to conduct a full review of its website, after discovering technical problems that may have delayed disabi...

The Department of Veterans Affairs is outlining plans to conduct a full review of its website, after discovering technical problems that may have affected disability claims for more than 100,000 veterans.

VA officials said in September 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 initially estimated 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 Monday that the website issues impacted more than 120,000 veterans. That includes veterans impacted by additional VA.gov issues discovered earlier this year.

Kurt DelBene, the assistant secretary for information and technology and VA’s chief information officer, told lawmakers that the VA has implemented a “Code Yellow” process to ensure that the department can monitor for potential issues on its website.

DelBene said work underway with the Code Yellow will ensure a VA employee knows about any significant IT issues on VA.gov within 24 hours.

DelBene said that so far, VA under Code Yellow has consolidated 56 automatic monitors into a unified “watchtower,” where the health of VA.gov can be discerned in a single place.

At this point, 80% of VA.gov’s most important features are monitored. DelBene said VA will complete automatic monitoring of the site’s top features by the end of the first quarter of fiscal year 2024.

DelBene said VA.gov is the department’s “digital front door for veterans,” and that “veterans need to have confidence their benefits and services are available, accurate and secure.”

VA.gov receives about 14 million unique users each month.

VA Chief Technology Officer Charles Worthington said the watchtower efforts will reduce the chance of major IT errors from occurring on the site again.

“We are designing it so that we have more confidence in the specific health of any given feature at any given time, because VA.gov is such an expansive product with so many aspects. This will give us a way to know more proactively if there’s an issue happening impacting one of those features,” Worthington said.

VA’s top IT officials told the subcommittee in September that warning bells didn’t sound when VA.gov experienced problems this year, leading to a delayed response to address the issue.

While VA OIT is prioritizing automatic monitors for VA.gov’s top features, Worthington said it will eventually roll this feature out to all VA.gov services.

“As we expand the watchtower to include all the features, we may find other things that would be the hope is that we do find them so we can fix them,” Worthington said.

Subcommittee Chairman Matt Rosendale (R-Mont.) said he’s introducing the VA Watching Over Electronic Benefits Act, to ensure VA’s watchtower efforts work as intended.

“Mistakes are bound to happen. But it’s unacceptable that some of these errors persisted for years before anyone discovered them,” Rosendale said.

Rosendale urged the VA to be more proactive in contacting impacted veterans and offering them help, adding that many of these veterans and survivors depend on their VA benefits for most or all of their income.

“We all need to be confident that errors in VA.gov and other systems will never again be allowed to compound undetected and impact so many people,” he said.

VA Secretary Denis McDonough, in a letter to the full committee, wrote that the department is “taking immediate steps to prevent issues like this from happening in the future, and to ensure that if future issues arise, they are identified and fixed quickly.”

“While these issues have impacted a small percentage of total appeals and dependency updates, it is unacceptable for even one veteran’s benefits to be delayed due to technological issues,” McDonough wrote.

The VA announced in September it was conducting a “full review” of all processing systems on its main website, after discovering technical problems that may have delayed disability claims for tens of thousands of veterans.

About 32,000 veterans submitted their disability compensation claims through VA.gov, but the claims were never established in the system that processes them. VA said the issue has persisted since 2018.

Meanwhile, another 81,000 veterans and family members’ requests to add or remove dependents on VA.gov and its predecessor system were not processed by the site, causing them to be overpaid or underpaid. This issue dates back to 2011.

Subcommittee Chairwoman Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick (D-Fla.) said many of these issues have gone undiscovered for years, and that the current administration has “been left holding the bag” to fix them.

“Many of these issues have gone undiscovered for years, through multiple administrations, and countless CIOs. You just happen to be in this seat when we’ve found them and are left to answer all the hard questions,” Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick told DelBene.

In addition, VA told the committee in early November that it has been overpaying pensions to at least 9,900 veterans because of inaccurate data from the Social Security Administration and a faulty process for veterans to self-report their income.

Paul Shute, VA’s deputy under secretary for automated benefits delivery, told lawmakers a “computer match” between systems at the VA and Social Security Administration wasn’t providing accurate income data, and caused the pension issue. He said the issue has since been corrected.

VA says all veterans who have been underpaid benefits because of the VA.gov issues will receive the full backdated benefits owed to them. In the case of veterans who were overpaid benefits, the department has stopped all debt collection efforts stemming from these IT errors.

“We’re going to make sure that not only we make every single veteran whole who is affected by this issue, but any debts that were created as a result of any of these issues will not be incurred for those veterans,” Shute said.

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