Allegations of falsified records reflecting inaccurate wait times are surfacing in Texas as charges in connection with the Phoenix Veterans Affairs Health Care System and a VA outpatient clinic in Fort Collins, Colo., continue making headlines. Though investigations are ongoing, media reports suggest “at least 40 U.S. veterans died waiting for appointments” with the Phoenix system, many on what whistleblowers term a “secret waiting list.”
The Austin American-Statesman now reports a VA scheduling clerk is accusing officials in Austin and San Antonio of “manipulating medical appointment data in an attempt to hide long wait times to see doctors and psychiatrists.”
Per the Statesman:
In communications with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, a federal investigative body that protects government whistleblowers, the 40-year-old VA employee said he and others were “verbally directed by lead clerks, supervisors, and during training” to ensure that wait times at the Austin VA Outpatient Clinic and the North Central Federal Clinic in San Antonio were “as close to zero days as possible.”
The medical support assistant, who is seeking whistleblower protection and has been advised to remain anonymous by federal investigators, said he and other clerks achieved that by falsely logging patients’ desired appointment dates to sync with appointment openings. That made it appear there was little to no wait time, and ideally less than the department’s goal of 14 days. In reality, the clerk said, wait times for appointments could be as long as three months.
The clerk cited scheduling manipulations not only at the Austin VA Outpatient Clinic where he worked from December 2012 to December 2013, but also upon transferal to his current location, the San Antonio clinic. The Waco facility, per the clerk, used similar tactics during his employment there “earlier in 2012.”
“If you had any appointments showing over a 14-day waiting period you were given a report the next day to fix it immediately,” the clerk, a disabled veteran who served in the Army from 2002 to 2011, told the Statesman. “Fixing it meant recording the requested appointment date closer to the available opening.”
He also said that Austin scheduling clerks were specifically instructed to not to use the VA’s Electronic Waiting List program, a tool reportedly designed to fill canceled appointments with other veterans awaiting time slots.
The Statesman quotes the clerk’s communications with the Office of Special Counsel: “The failure to use (the electronic waiting list) may also pose a substantial and specific danger to public health, because patients who should be included on the EWL are not receiving more timely appointments when they become available.”
In responding to the allegations, the Statesman reports local VA officials issued a statement saying “they would review their scheduling practices, but didn’t directly address the claims.”
“In light of the charges recently made against the Phoenix VA, (director of the Central Texas Veterans Health Care System Sallie) Houser-Hanfelder has made it clear she does not endorse hidden lists of any kind,” the statement reads. “To ensure the integrity of the health care system, she has directed each service chief to certify they have reviewed each of their sections and scheduling practices to ensure VA scheduling policies are being followed. All staff who schedule appointments have also been instructed to have refresher training to make sure policies are clear and being followed accurately.”
Calls for the resignation of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki are increasing. U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, has joined the American Legion, the nation’s largest veterans service organization, and others in asking Shinseki to step down. With the Texas allegations, he is now also calling for emergency hearings.
“Scandals like these confirm that the VA lacks safeguards against official abuses and it also lacks accountability,” Cornyn said addressing the Senate floor.