Supervisors instructed employees to falsify patient wait times at Veterans Affairs’ medical facilities in at least seven states, according to a USA TODAY analysis of more than 70 investigation reports released in recent weeks.
Overall, those reports — released after multiple inquiries and a Freedom of Information Act request — reveal for the first time specifics of widespread scheduling manipulation.
Employees at 40 VA medical facilities in 19 states and Puerto Rico regularly “zeroed out” veteran wait times, the analysis shows. In some cases, investigators found manipulation had been going on for as long as a decade. In others, it had been just a few years.
In many cases, facility leaders told investigators they clamped down the scheduling improprieties after the Phoenix scandal, but in others, investigators found they had continued unabated.The manipulation masked growing demand as new waves of veterans returned from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and as Vietnam veterans aged and needed more health care.
In 2014, The Arizona Republic, part of the USA TODAY NETWORK, and other media revealed scheduling manipulation at Phoenix VA Medical Center and that dozens of veterans died while waiting for care. Subsequent reporting that year showed that similar problems extended nationwide. Investigators had said manipulation was “systemic,” but they did not identify which facilities had problems and how serious they were. The inspector general soon launched investigations of more than 100 facilities.
The newly released findings of those probes show that supervisors instructed schedulers to manipulate wait times in Arkansas, California, Delaware, Illinois, New York, Texas and Vermont, giving the false impression facilities there were meeting VA performance measures for shorter wait times.
In some cases, the system encouraged manipulation even without explicit instruction from supervisors. A manager in West Palm Beach, Fla., sent out laudatory emails touting the shorter wait times the system showed. Schedulers in Harlingen, Texas, reported being berated by supervisors when they booked appointments showing longer wait times for veterans. (It was “not pretty,” one employee said.)
In some cases — in Gainesville, Fla., White River Junction, Vt., and Philadelphia, for example — they found VA employees improperly kept lists of veterans needing care outside the scheduling system, a violation that also hid actual wait times.
Roughly half of the 70 newly released reports are from investigations completed more than a year ago, and the VA says it already initiated discipline against 29 people — three of whom left the agency — because of the findings.
The agency said it has retrained thousands of schedulers and is updating software to make it easier for them to book appointments properly. A pilot program at 10 facilities allows veterans to book their own appointments, and the VA expects to roll that out nationwide, according to David Shulkin, a physician who took over as undersecretary for health at the VA in June.
Shulkin told USA TODAY he also initiated two massive, same-day efforts to try to provide care sooner for more than 100,000 veterans, and he said the agency also has increased capacity to get wait times down.
“We’ve expanded appointments, we have added evening hours and weekend hours, we’ve added 3 million square feet of space, we’ve hired 14,000 new providers,” he said.
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SOURCE: USA Today, Donovan Slack