Coast Guard Used ‘Digital Tool’ to Aid in Efficiently Denying Vaccine Exemptions, GOP Lawmakers Allege

Coast Guard Used ‘Digital Tool’ to Aid in Efficiently Denying Vaccine Exemptions, GOP Lawmakers Allege
A member of the U.S. military receives the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine at Camp Foster in Ginowan, Japan, on April 28, 2021. (Carl Court/Getty Images)
Republicans on the House Committee on Oversight and Reform on Oct. 18 sent a letter to Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Linda L. Fagan to request a briefing on the Coast Guard’s process for reviewing religious accommodation exemption applications to the Pentagon’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate.

The GOP lawmakers said in the letter that they had received information that “indicates that the adjudication process for exemption applications was a pro forma exercise designed to reach predetermined conclusions—to deny requests and appeals—in nearly every single case.”

Rather than focusing on the individual merits of each accommodation request, the letter alleged, the Coast Guard “created a digital tool to assist in more efficiently denying appeals.”

This accusation came after a leaked internal memo in June by the Pentagon’s acting inspector general which found “a trend of generalized assessments rather than the individualized assessment that is required by Federal law and DoD and Military Service policies.”

Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.), who signed the letter, told The Epoch Times that the U.S. Constitution and federal law protect the religious rights of service members.

He described the Coast Guard’s alleged mass rejection of religious exemption requests with the help of a digital tool as “unacceptable.”

The GOP lawmakers said in the letter that out of more than 1,300 exemption requests received, “[l]ess than a handful of these requests were ultimately approved, and all of those approvals were for service members who were already scheduled to separate from service.”

In particular, they noted the use of a computer-generated form-filler tool to help with the dismissal of appeals of accommodation request denials as “troubling.”

The “Religious Accommodations Appeal Generator” allowed Coast Guard adjudicators to “select from a pre-populated list of two dozen possible religious objections or noted defects that applicants had raised in the initial dismissal decision,” the letter stated. By clicking the “Submit” button, a dismissal letter populated and provided a “predetermined reason why that argument was insufficient to overcome a denial” it added.

“This tool permitted adjudicators to quickly dispose of appeals without considering their merits, even when legitimate defects in the initial decision were identified,” the letter stated.

Biggs said, “my colleagues and I in the House Oversight and Reform Committee demand answers and a briefing on this matter as soon as possible.” Committee Republicans have requested a staff-level briefing with Fagan no later than Oct. 25.

In response to an inquiry about the letter from The Epoch Times, a media spokesperson for the branch said in an email: “The Coast Guard takes its obligations to review and carefully consider each religious accommodation request filed by one of our members seriously. Every request received individualized review and analysis in accordance with law and Coast Guard policy.”

‘Web of Deceit’

Rocky Rogers, a Coast Guard IT chief with over 20 years of service who retired in August, told The Epoch Times about problems with the Coast Guard’s processing of exemption requests that he encountered before he left the service
He pointed to Commandant Instruction 1000.15 which states that the Office of Military Personnel Policy (CG-133) “is the approval authority for all requests to be exempt from immunizations.”

According to Rogers, “the majority, if not all, commanders told their members who were seeking religious accommodation to forward their application through their local command rather than directly to CG-133.” He is aware of other individuals who were allowed to “act in place of CG-133” to help process applications with the apparent intention of making it a speedier process, he said.

“I brought this exact issue to my direct supervisor and Command as it goes against Coast Guard policy for anyone other than CG-133 to process requests for religious accommodation,” Rogers said. “I was told that it’s not realistic for one person to process that many applications.”

Rogers added that he was aware of requests going to multiple offices above the level of CG-133. “Despite spreading the work around, it still took over the 30 to 60 day processing time for Coasties to receive acknowledgment of their submission,” he said. The receipt of Rogers’ submission for religious accommodation was not acknowledged for 117 days.

“Religious accommodation packages were sent to a shared mailbox, and many people had access to this shared mailbox,” he said, adding that “some were stationed at other units not associated with headquarters to help process applications.”

The retired officer likened the Coast Guard’s handling of the requests to a “web of deceit.”

As of Oct. 18, the Coast Guard had received 1,250 religious accommodation requests, of which 12 had been approved, and 1,238 denied, according to a media spokesperson for the branch. That’s an approval rate of just under 1 percent

Rogers was not surprised by the denial of religious accommodation for 99 percent of applicants.

“This goes against the Coast Guard’s core of values—honor, respect, and devotion to duty,” he said.

The revelations in the lawmakers’ letter about the Coast Guard using a digital tool to help with rejecting appeals, coupled with the findings of the inspector general memo that found that denial determinations didn’t show consideration of the individual merits of the application, were telling, according to Rogers.

“It makes perfect sense as to why the denials were so identical,” he said. “It’s because the choices were already pre-determined.”

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