Colorado veterans seeking health care from the Department of Veterans Affairs faced excessive wait times and, in some instances, denied care, according to a new watchdog report.
The VA inspector general found that dozens of veterans faced excessive wait times for care at a Colorado Springs outpatient clinic. Long wait times were covered up by scheduling staffers who used the wrong dates to make it appear that patients faced shorter wait times.
The report comes nearly two years after employees at the Phoenix VA were found to be using fake wait lists to conceal the amount of time that veterans were waiting for health care. Dozens of veterans died while waiting for the appointments, and the controversy forced then-VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to resign.
According to the report released Thursday, investigators found that 288 veterans seeking specialty or primary care appointments at the PFC Floyd K. Lindstrom Outpatient Clinic faced wait times over 30 days. This amounts to 64 percent of the 450 appointments reviewed by the inspector general.
Excessive wait times ranged from 31 days to over 200 days.
Staffers are required to put veterans on the so-called Veterans Choice List, which allows them to receive care outside of the VA if they face wait times exceeding 30 days. However, the inspector general found that, for 288 veterans, staffers either did not add them to the list in a timely manner or did not add them to the list at all.
One hundred veterans were denied care because they were not added to the list.
More than one-fifth of the veterans who faced excessive wait times were not offered timely care because staffers used incorrect dates to fake shorter wait times.
"For 59 of the 288 veterans with appointments more than 30 days, scheduling staff used incorrect dates that made it appear the appointment wait time was less than 30 days," the inspector general wrote. "Of these 59 appointments scheduled more than 30 days from the clinically indicated or preferred appointment dates, 34 were for primary care appointments and 25 were for appointments scheduled from consults."
For most of the primary care appointments, scheduling staffers incorrectly used the date of the first available appointment as the preferred appointment date, leading the system to show the veteran waiting zero days for care. These veterans waited an average of 72 days for care, with some waiting as many as 160 days.
The report cites the example of a veteran who served in Afghanistan and Iraq who waited 77 days for care after requesting an appointment in November 2014. Scheduling staffers used the wrong date to produce an "erroneous zero-day wait time."
"This report documents blatant dishonesty and corruption, and the sad truth is that this same sort of behavior is routinely tolerated across the department," said Rep. Jeff Miller, chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee. "Proof of this lies in the fact that VA has successfully fired just three employees for wait-time manipulation in the wake of a national scandal revolving around the same issue."
The fake wait list scandal in 2014 led Congress to pass and President Obama to sign the Veterans Access, Choice, and Accountability Act to boost veterans care, a law that established the Veterans Choice Program allowing veterans to obtain care outside the VA in the event of long wait times.
Still, problems at VA hospitals nationwide have persisted, leading lawmakers to push for legislation that would allow VA Secretary Robert McDonald to remove or demote a VA employee for misconduct. Obama threatened to veto the bill last year.
"The reason these problems keep occurring throughout the department is because our dysfunctional federal civil service system makes it nearly impossible for VA to adequately discipline corrupt and incompetent employees," Miller said in a statement.
"Compounding the situation is the fact that top VA and Obama administration leaders lack the will to even admit there’s a problem, let alone address it," Miller said.
John Cooper, press secretary for Concerned Veterans for America, said in a statement Friday that the new report further illustrates the need for accountability at the government agency.
"It is unacceptable that hundreds of Colorado veterans were first denied VA care and then faced further delays in getting that care because of VA mismanagement. It is also unbelievable that nearly two years after the wait list scandal broke, we are still learning of instances in which VA employees, at best, don’t know how to record patient wait times, or at worst, are still manipulating those wait times to cast the VA in a more positive light," Cooper told the Free Beacon.
"Either way, the VA desperately needs accountability, because our veterans deserve better," Cooper said.