VA blames coding error for fatal disease scare

Department says about 620 veterans were affected

The Veterans Affairs Department on Aug. 27 blamed computer coding error for letters it wrongly sent to about 620 veterans last week informing them they had the fatal Lou Gehrig’s disease.

The VA mailed letters to 1,864 veterans on Aug. 13 informing them of a diagnosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. About a third of the letters were sent erroneously, the VA said in a statement released Aug. 27.

The VA now is faulting computer coding for the problem.

“VA used data and information from its database to identify veterans diagnosed with ALS or who had filed a claim for ALS but were not currently receiving disability compensation benefits for the condition," the VA said. "However, as a result of problems in the codes VA used to identify these veterans, VA sent the letter to some veterans who do not have ALS."

While the agency did not specify the nature of the coding error, Jim Bunker, president of the National Gulf War Resource Center, a veterans services nonprofit group, earlier said a VA official told him that the agency had assigned ALS a diagnosis code that had previously applied to unspecific neurological disorders. When the agency sent the letters, some went to patients who had that code in their records but had never been diagnosed with ALS, Bunker said.

The VA also said it will compensate veterans who sought medical consultations after receiving the letters, and the agency will create a “more rigorous” process to screen its veterans medical data.

In September, VA ruled that veterans diagnosed with ALS would presumptively qualify for disability payments. The neurological disease causes serious deterioration and is fatal.

To notify veterans of their eligibility, on Aug. 13, the VA sent outreach letters to 1,864 veterans and survivors.

According to Bunker's organization, the letters stated: “According to the records of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), you have a diagnosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). This letter tells you about VA disability compensation benefits that may be available to you."

However, many of the recipients of the letter do not have ALS.

 

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

Reader comments

Tue, Sep 1, 2009 Luigi Montanez Washington, DC

This isn't an error with software code, it's a problem with the coding system used in the database. That is, the code for Lou Gehrig's disease may have been something like "AL3", and there was a mistake/typo somewhere and those vets coded with a "AM3" were sent the letter instead. The problem is that these systems are from an age when every byte was important, so esoteric codes made sense. Nowadays, they definitely don't.

Mon, Aug 31, 2009 oracle2world

Wow, these guys are pros! A "computer coding error" aka computer error. Nice catch-all excuse that has stood the test of time. Now the hardware boys always have the "soft memory error" to fall back on ... but stuff like this the software folks can't easily weasel out of.

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